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A nation yawns as Democratic hopefuls trudge to the starting line

A nation yawns as Democratic hopefuls trudge to the starting line

It seems like only yesterday that the election season ended. Of course, it’s already started again, with the Democratic field pretty much sorting itself out for the 2004 presidential election. That’s not necessarily bad, despite the popular annoyance at politicians who seem never to leave the people alone. It’s a symptom of democracy.

After Al Gore announced his decision not to run again, all the second-tier Democrats realized that they would be playing on a more-or-less level playing field and began to signal their intentions. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle has opted out, while a genuine question mark, Florida Sen. Bob Graham, is still pending, as is the fellow who would be the race’s true exclamation point—Gary Hart, returning from Palookaville (or, Oxford, as it’s spelled in England).

On the Republican side, there’s really nothing to talk about, barring something truly bizarre by John McCain or the unlikely event of Pat Buchanan being taken seriously again.

In the Democratic field so far are Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (although some of these are still engaging in the fiction that they require “exploratory committees” to determine the location of their presidential ambitions). Also threatening to appear on the ballot is Harlem activist Al Sharpton.

A few other names are getting tossed around with varying levels of seriousness, though it’s already considered late in the campaign season to be getting started. When Gore decided to take a run at the 1988 presidential campaign in April 1987, that relatively late start left him scrambling to find top political staffers. Most experienced hands already had found campaigns to sign on with.

Graham is the most interesting pending figure. He represents a large swing state that was once part of the Confederacy. He served two terms as governor, giving him executive experience that most of his colleagues lack. He has generally moderate views on most issues and has credible national security credentials as a member of the Joint Intelligence Committee. On paper he looks formidable. Whether he can really capture anyone’s interest is another matter. He’s been in the Senate a long time without jumping out as a particularly prominent media hog, indicating that he either lacks political flair or carnal political appetites.

Looking great on paper is never as good as looking great on television, which is one of the cornerstones of Edwards’ candidacy. The former Nashvillian has about the thinnest credentials of anyone to run for president since George W. Bush. Edwards will try to establish himself as the representative of his region, in contrast to the three New England candidates already in the field.

Meanwhile, nobody seems to be tremendously distressed at Daschle’s decision to stay home. Daschle was a successful Democratic leader in the Senate when his party was in the minority and Bill Clinton was in the White House. As the party’s front man against Bush for the midterm elections, he was less successful. More than anything, Daschle represents the failure of many Democrats to move beyond traditional labor-social welfare politics to speak to issues of national security in the face of growing national concern.

Perhaps there was no more pathetic moment than the interview after the midterm election when Daschle declared the Democrats had failed because the voters had focused on security issues “instead of the things we were really interested in.” Security is the foremost responsibility of government. Its salience with the voters goes up and down with perceived threat levels, but the reluctance of many Democrats to come to grips with the issue remains the party’s perpetual weak point.

Of course, in deciding whether to run, prospective Democratic candidates have to determine whether what they have to offer is what the country is going to think it needs two years from now—not what it thinks it needs right now. Democrats planning to challenge Bush on the basis of being better managers of the economy probably will find themselves on soggy footing. However shaky the current recovery may seem now, the economic cycle is likely to perk up by election time regardless of what the president and Congress decide to do. Only heightened national security issues could prevent that—Iraq, North Korea and the militant Islamists. In that case, being the economic management candidate won’t help.

The most intriguing contender, however, is Hart, who squandered a commanding lead over the 1988 Democratic field in the indulgence of his own weirdness. For all that, Hart was a genuinely innovative thinker about policy issues and might have brought some real brilliance to governance—in contrast to Bush and Clinton, whose achievements were strictly political.

There’s one other factor to consider about Hart. As a 67-year-old candidate, he presumably would be beyond the kind of perils that sunk his last campaign. And unlike Bob Dole, he probably won’t start doing Viagra commercials when it’s all over.

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