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Candidate Who?

We know this about Howard Dean: He’s an antiwar ex-doctor and ex-governor. But is he the guy to beat Bush—or just a stand-in for the real candidate?

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Lots of savvy liberal people I know have suddenly begun to say that Bush could be toast. And while I realize this most surely says more about the people I know than it does about the state of American politics, it also seems like a logical point of departure as I begin occasional coverage of the presidential campaign.

It’s a story line: Can wishful liberals, as mocked a group as any in America, organize themselves and rise up and overthrow the most popular president of modern times?

At the beginning of the summer, I noted in passing that “there’s nobody but a fabulist or paid believer who doesn’t think the Democrats are going to lose in 2004.” Now, at midsummer, almost everywhere you look there’s a new group of almost giddy Democrats.

These are not, in general, professional politicos, most of whom still seem glum, but citizen strategists emerging from two years of funk. They are rediscovering their political dexterity: fitting optimistic pegs in optimistic holes. They believe a winning strategy is simply binary: If it doesn’t go for you, it goes against you.

After all, there’s the incredibly bad news out of Iraq (even with Saddam’s bad seeds wiped out). It’s guerrilla war, says General John Abizaid, who’s just taken over from General Tommy Franks. (And guerrilla war is the nightmare of all nightmares in American foreign policy.) And then there’s the credibility gap: The weapons of mass destruction and the sixteen-word misstatement are shaping up to be Bush’s Gulf of Tonkin. And then there’s the $5 billion a month (or is it a week?) that Iraq and Afghanistan are costing the U.S., along with the $500 billion deficit. And then there’s Tony Blair, who, conceivably, may go down because of his friendship with George Bush.

This, of course, fits into the Bush I Redux Theory: At just about this point in the 1992 campaign cycle, the president’s father, heretofore unbeatable, began to crumble (indeed, he was stronger longer—he emerged a giant from his war). So here we are again.

But these optimistic armchair strategists have even more on their side than just the president’s mounting troubles and a faith in history repeating itself. They have . . . the Bob Graham card!

Graham, Florida’s beloved former governor (at any rate, in the Democratic telling, he’s become beloved—and what’s more, as everyone is delightedly discovering, he’s a relative of Katharine Graham), is everybody’s strategic vice-presidential solution. He holds (the theory goes) the key to Florida, which is the key to the electoral college and to righting that greatest of all political wrongs—the stolen election.

And then there are the haters. For the past two and a half years, Bush haters have been, if not invisible, then lying very low. Their mood has been more one of disbelief than of grievance. But the haters are back (the president in full pilot regalia on the deck of the aircraft carrier seems to mark the moment when people started to openly snarl again). There is even the sense that the hate here could develop into world-class presidential hatred. Bête noire hatred. Nixon- and Clinton-level hatred (of course, they were both re-elected). These haters, through the pure power of loathing—aesthetic and cultural as much as political—believe that Bush can be held to one term.

There’s an apocalyptic side of this view: Bush will be defeated because he must be defeated because the alternative is too ghastly to contemplate. As it happens, Bush haters, like Hillary haters, are quite responsive to direct-marketing solicitation—not least of all via the Internet—which is the driver of any new popular movement.

And perhaps most important among the strategists, the haters, the fabulists, and the paid believers are those who actually pay to play. The big-check writers. The max-out check writers, the big swinging dicks of elections, who rightly believe in the power of their own dough (together with the fact that they know other people with dough) and who are suddenly starting to step into view. These are the people who change perceptions. It’s a heady moment when the money starts to flow—and if Bush still has more money, the Democrats, so far, have $50 million on the table (note: While the Bushies are hoarding cash, the Democrats are spending theirs).


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