There are suddenly multiple versions of the presidential race: In the first, the presidential bus with its long-booked parcel of candidates—the first-tier Dean and Kerry; the second-tier Gephardt, Lieberman, and Edwards; the dark-horse Graham; and the entertainment-value Moseley Braun, Kucinich, and Sharpton—left the station as much as a year ago. There is no catching up to it. In four months, the primaries begin. And, arranged to get a winner sooner and to avoid undue intra-party fractiousness, the primaries come fast on each other’s heels. It may be depressing that people would actually run this long—exhausting themselves as well as our interest in them—but that is the cruel fact of modern electioneering. No political professional would tell you otherwise.
In the alternate reality, the political world is in the midst of a revivifying transformation. It began in May with the president’s over-the-top appearance in full pilot regalia onboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, when he pronounced the war over and done with, and reached a certain critical apogee with his bear-any-burden $87 billion speech last week. At the very least, the speech was a grotesque mismanagement of expectations and, quite possibly, political folly of historic magnitude. The turning point for the Bush administration was all but official—and his undoing went into high gear.
If in the May appearance he was playing the commander-in-chief, the movie had now drastically changed and in the rewrite he is the guy who is personally losing the war.
Hence, a third version: the last-minute hope that some more interesting, disruptive, oversize, inevitable, crowd-pleasing, seize-the-day fantasy candidate might emerge.
It may be that in every election season, this exact what-if or who-else fantasy arrives just as—indeed precisely because—it is too late. But this time, uniquely, making the fantasy so much more compelling, the Democrats do have potential candidates who don’t need a year of prior brand-building and dues-paying and war-chest-accumulating and humping it all over the place to be as big and as scene-stealing as they would have to be.
Now there’s the general—a liberal, even eggheaded, war-winning, southern-born four-star general.
And, in some pageant-size fantasy, there’s the former First Lady—in an age when the true cost of any political or marketing campaign is the creation of recognition and brand, she is as famous, as iconic, as you can be.
This may be an opportunity such as has never before been presented to one political party.
Certainly the extended-primary-timeline thing is screwy. Instead of holding our options open for as long as possible, as most everyone strives to do in an ever-transforming world, we limit our political options as early as possible.
In a world of on-demand supply, politics offers up old inventory.
I mean, back a year ago, when, in conventional political time, you had to reasonably and definitively make up your mind about running for president, George Bush was unbeatable, Iraq was looming (with bipartisan support), and 9/11 and homeland security were the name of the game (even Al Gore was still around—you can bet that he’s now wishing he hadn’t made up his mind to get out of the race so soon).
From that set of circumstances, we got two kinds of Democratic candidates.
The first kind, which includes John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, and John Edwards, decided not to try to fight George Bush’s success—rather, they were all offering to improve on it.
They couldn’t reject the war or the national-security state. A year ago, that would have been counterintuitive, if not kooky, for a mainstream politician. Their position became: Well, let’s see how far Bush goes with this. Presidents, after all, usually gain points when they wage these wars. And liberal candidates usually lose points when they oppose them (think of the eccentric souls who challenged the first Bush’s Iraq adventure).
So Kerry became Mr. Vietnam. His hook was that he had been in a war (putting aside the fact that his war was nearly 40 years ago, which is like someone arguing during Vietnam that he should have been elected because he had served in World War I) and George Bush hadn’t.
Gephardt became Mr. I-supported-the-president-because-I-helped-get-the-war-through-Congress.
Lieberman was Mr. I’m-for-the-war-because-I’m-not-really-liberal.
Edwards was Mr. I’m-from-the-South-and-the-military-is-from-the-South.
Collectively, the Establishment Democratic message circa a year ago was: We’re not pussies.
Of course, Bush was mind-bogglingly popular. No way, in that climate, could you figure on beating him on the patriotism and toughness issues. So what you had to do was look reasonable on national security—support-the-president reasonable; I’m-for-the-war reasonable; WMDs-are-a-clear-and-present-threat reasonable—and pray that the economy was going into the crapper, that the double-dip recession was going to be real and painful.
Now, the problem is not just that the established Democrats bet wrong on Iraq and national-security issues a year ago but that, having bet wrong, they made possible the rise of a heretofore-unknown antiwar candidate.
And so the main choices on the table for the past year have been this foursome of warhorses who could not realistically expect to be elected (unless the economy tanked, exactly as it did for Clinton in ’92) and who were not even, except around the edges, really opposing Bush, and a new, but sentimental, favorite who has articulated the antiwar and anti-Bush emotions of a particular demographic of the party.
The question for Democrats (at any rate, for those paying attention) has been, Which loser candidate do you back?
Or that was the question until the Iraq war turned into a protracted, bloody, and insanely pricey mess—becoming, it seems possible, one of history’s great I-told-you-so moments. Indeed, there suddenly seems to be only one 24/7 news-cycle theme: The Bush people simply have no idea what they’re doing.
And it’s only going to get worse. On the present course, 1,000 Americans will be dead in Iraq by the next election. If you plot the course geometrically—the anti-U.S. Iraqis are getting better at their killing business—it could be many times that. In addition to the mounting federal deficit, there is now the ever-growing death deficit.
This is very bad for the president, obviously. Except for the fact that most of the Bush opponents have spent the past year—along with the president—defending the war (they are all still, in Humphrey-esque ways, defending it). And the one who is not is as unelectable (for all of the obvious reasons—regional, stylistic, ideological) a candidate as has surfaced in a long, long time.
George Bush is toast—but for a toaster.