Candidate Who?

Photo: AP Photos

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).

Of course, this vanguard operates at a substantial disconnect from the rest of the country—including what is arguably its liberalish majority—which still seems to accept the conventional wisdom that Bush has almost every advantage an incumbent could want: great popularity, tons of cash, and a deft media touch.

This also continues to be the media view (also binary): Bush will be either unbeatable or unelectable. And the odds supporting the latter outcome are not odds that any reasonable person would want to play. So not only has the media —at least so far—accepted the inevitability of a second-term Bush, but it continues to confer a corollary ridiculousness onto his opponents and their supporters.

Indeed, it was with such a media bias that a few weeks ago I went to my first event of the long—fifteen months to go—campaign season: a Howard Dean fund-raiser.

I would not have gone except for the repeated urgings of a friend who falls into various of the vanguard categories (optimist, check writer, and, at other times, paid believer). Nor do I think I would have been interested if, that day, the Dean campaign had not reported that it had raised more money—7.5 million bucks—than any other Democratic candidate in this past reporting period, making Dean the front-runner in what’s being called the invisible primary. (The front-page story in the Times by Adam Nagourney vividly conveyed the tone of media disbelief.)

Like so many other people, up until that moment I had not given Howard Dean any thought at all. Even his name did not have a permanent brain slot. Prior to the $7.5 million, I am not sure I could have told you if he had been governor of New Hampshire or Vermont.

This was part of the point, of course. Being a blank slate, you have the advantage of not having to overcome what people already think they know about you.

John Kerry is haughty and married to someone rich and was in Vietnam and may or may not be the other politician named Kerry. Joe Lieberman is Jewish. John Edwards is another boyish Democrat from the South. Bob Graham is from Florida and (complicating the Bob Graham card) may have an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Dick Gephardt always runs and never wins. Dennis Kucinich bankrupted Cleveland.

Howard Dean? Nothing much.

Except he’s a liberal. A possibly too-liberal liberal. And against the war.

Oh, and he’s a doctor. THE DOCTOR IS IN is his campaign slogan. Being a doctor has, of course, a certain political currency because so many voters are old and because health care is a hot-button issue; also, the new Republican majority leader in the Senate is a doctor. (But what was Dr. Dean a doctor of? And why, if he’s a doctor, did he become a governor? Did he not like being a doctor?)

And he’s the upset candidate. The insurgent. The official take-back-the-night guy.

The fund-raiser, in an upstairs room at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street, with the requisite food spread and some ad hoc entertainment by Marvin Hamlisch, was unexpectedly filled with people I have known throughout my liberal adulthood: a former publisher, a kid (now grown up) who did page layouts for me who is the heir to a great fortune, a couple my wife and I used to hang out with in East Hampton when we all had young children. So this was our thing. Howard Dean was being embraced by my people.

There was, I felt, determination, but also awkwardness in the air—like it was the first mixer of the new school year. A kind of sheepishness hung in the room and surrounded Howard Dean himself. Certainly he must find his own ascension unexpected and confusing. The reality of all this—from unknown to serious presidential contender inside of a few months—must seem awfully weird.

Nobody was really making eye contact.

The skittishness here was not, I don’t think, about the too-liberal thing or his out-front antiwar position, or even the McGovern-Goldwater formulation that pundits were starting to pronounce (i.e., Dean’s nomination by the far-left wing of the party would have a catastrophic effect on Democrat prospects everywhere).

It was the opposite of that. The self-conscious leap of faith going on here was to embrace someone who hardly yet existed.

Indeed, anyone in this room might have reasonably said: Why him?

This lack of inevitability was somewhat embarrassing and yet somehow the point.

Howard Dean was someone to shade and color and develop as the campaign went on (there were rumors that he has all sorts of middle-of-the-road positions that will soon emerge). George Bush and Bill Clinton, after all, were both relative nonentities before they were turned into what they had to become.

In that respect, you could see the fast-growing interest in Howard Dean not as quixotic but in fact as tough-minded. You take an unknown from the provinces and you spiff him up.

So you had your optimistic strategists (at the fund-raiser, two people discussed the Bob Graham card with me—each as though it were his own brilliant notion) and your Bush haters, and big-check writers, and Ed Norton standing next to me, and the sense of well-intentioned people ready to do something (if not exactly to seize the day). And you had Howard Dean. Too short by far to be president. But with a friendly face. And a why-not sense of the moment.

You could almost feel, as Marvin Hamlisch played the piano, the fine line between being and nothingness.

And then, too, you had the undercurrent, the ultimate upset scenario, on the back breath of the room: Howard Dean was nothing so much as Gene McCarthy, and everyone here was really waiting for Bobby Kennedy, who, of course, was Hillary.

It’s in the air.

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Candidate Who?