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.
And so there is the desire to start over again. To begin the race from scratch. To rethink the takedown strategy.
Or, at least, to engage in the fantasy of all that.
Now, it is germane to this—both the strategy part and the fantasy part—to understand that the alternatives to the present field are in no small part Bill Clinton’s alternatives.
He is the great strategist (rivaled only by Nixon in his inveterate out-of-power political gaming) as well as the great manipulator, and his is the great fantasy of revenge. It’s his blood score to settle (as much as it was, last time, George Bush’s blood score to settle).
It is indicative either of the fantasy aspect of all this or of some more careful and clever calibration that he has two candidates: his general (the victor of his war in Kosovo) and his wife. These are the party’s “two stars,” he said last week at a fund-raiser for Hillary at their home in Chappaqua.
First, the general. Let me render him in the idealized terms of the fantasy:
Wesley Clark’s shadow campaign is being run from a small office in Little Rock, his hometown. This is, in itself, not a small detail: He would be, as regular Army and native son, the only Democrat (the only Democrat, arguably, in many years) to have a natural claim on the military-centered South (the military may be the true southern issue).
Clark has been pursuing the idea of a presidential race for almost a year now. Indeed, he has demurred only ever so gently about his intentions. There’s hardly an invitation to appear before a useful or influential group that he’s turned down. It’s been a well-crafted, strategically run hypothetical campaign.
Undoubtedly, his final decision to run or not has already been made—and many people expect him to announce it this week.
“Bill Clinton is the great strategist as well as the great manipulator, and his is the great fantasy of revenge. It’s his blood score to settle—as, last time, it was Bush’s.”
It is not likely that the 58-year-old career Army officer will again experience such a popular call for a military man in public life. This is as aligned as the stars get.
The fit is amazing. Delicious. He may well hold every political trump card you can hold. A general but a Democrat (relatively speaking, this is on a par with Colin Powell’s being black). A Democrat but a Southerner. A Southerner but a smarty (a Rhodes scholar—how many Rhodes scholars does Arkansas produce, anyway?). A candidate with the unmistakable contemporary virtue of not having been a politician.
And beyond each of the formal electoral-vote-grabbing slots that he fills, he’s really presentable.
Together with his sweeping geopolitical background and his background in military management—which is the very least that is going to be required to get us out of this Iraq mess—are gifts of language and articulation.
He talks great (this may be a benefit of having done several tours as a news-show talking head).
You can’t listen to this guy and not think, Where’s he been all my life? Everybody I know who’s been in any sort of proximity to him has come away smitten.
He racks up crushes wherever he goes. These aren’t Clinton-like crushes either—there is an austerity, a coolness, a precision to him, in contrast to the Clinton touchiness. Clark offers another kind of attractiveness. This general is astute, analytic, funny, liberal, charming—our general. (He’s even half-Jewish.)
Stay with me in this idealization: Wesley Clark potentially represents a historic reinvention of the Democratic Party. He brings back the South. He begins to bridge the divide in a country split between relative liberalishness and a recalcitrant white-southern-rural nativism whose emotional heart is the military.
What’s more, the Clark-versus-Bush rationale is irresistible:
George Bush has made himself into a wartime president without the background or skill sets or intuition to properly fight the fight. Lacking these attributes and abilities, he has fallen victim to a variety of ideological advisers and advocates who also lack the experience to fight a war, hence getting us into a situation in Iraq that is going to require some better talent to get us out of.
Wesley Clark is the cavalry. A real commander-in-chief.
Face it: The only antiwar candidate America is ever going to elect is one who is a four-star general.
And Hillary—as idealized:
Dreary politics becomes fabulous theater.
A Hillary run could make politics as bloody interesting (or as bloody and interesting) as it has been in two generations.
We enter the realm of the unprecedented. It’s hard to predict the kind of combustion that would occur. One of the best-known—and most polarizing—figures in the country steps forward to attempt to reach the summit of first woman president.
She’d suck up all the world’s attention. Arnold doesn’t hold a candle to her.
The book thing—the phenomenon of the book, the magnitude of the sales figures for a book that, after all, wasn’t very interesting—made it clear that the Hillary fascination was neither diminishing nor wholly coupled to Bill.
It made it clear not just that this was a women’s thing but that we probably had no idea how powerful this women’s thing might be.
The Hillary thing is obsessional. And most of it (like her) lies below the surface.
The book said nothing so much as that she wanted to be president—even that she, not her husband, was (in her mind, anyway) the epic political event. And the book clearly demonstrated that she possessed the packaging skills and nuance to run for president.
“In the democratic mind, it’s Vietnam redux: We’ll back and antiwar candidate even if he’ll likely lose. In other words, it hasn’t yet become about winning.”
She has become, we know, an extraordinarily talented politician. Not, in fact, a Clinton-style charismatic politician, but just the opposite. A calculating, disciplined, by-the-book, cover-all-the-details politician—in some sense, her every move deftly admonishes, to her obvious political benefit, her husband.
What’s more, she has money in the bank. Her political-action committee—HILLPAC is among the most successful political fund-raising entities—supports not only her but many other Democrats (who will one day, in turn, support her).
Her script has been an obvious one: The Democrats would be sorely beaten in the 2004 race, and she would emerge as the most significant figure in the party. She would run for reelection to her Senate seat in 2006, win resoundingly, and be on her way, at the still-young but grandmotherly age of 60, to the 2008 nomination.
This was surely the script she was following, and the calculation she was making, when she decided (without, one might imagine, much agonizing) not to run in 2004.
But now, inconveniently but temptingly, the circumstances have changed.
If a Democrat wins in 2004, the Hillary historic-inevitability scenario gets all messed up.
Indeed, the prospect of General Clark’s getting into the race may move her closer to it: to be the spoiler’s spoiler.
Of course, if he doesn’t, and the Democrats are left with only likely losers, she remains on script. Except that opportunity is the only political instinct that really counts.
If she believes that Bush can reasonably be beaten, it becomes, if not incumbent on her to try, painful not to.
Even with all this control and discipline on her part, it’s her blood score, too.
But if Bill Clinton is one oracular pole of the Democratic Party, the other (perhaps more Greek chorus) is that group of consultants and money people and senior officials known as political professionals.
And the political professionals are far from seeing an upset or turnaround or any new thing coming along. Or, in fact, they have already seen the new thing, and that’s the Dean antiwar juggernaut, which the professional wing regards with grim fascination.
In the professional view, it really does come down to how long you’ve been doing this—how long you’ve been out there, slogging. The problem isn’t just the difficulty in building an organization virtually overnight, but having to overcome the organizational strength of someone who has already built up a big operation. (Having an organization is one of the telling political conceits, because more often than not even an entrenched political organization is an inefficient hodgepodge of volunteers, retirees, and incompetents—but leave that for another day.)
And then the money. It is not just that it takes a long time to raise it but that there’s only so much of it. And, the conventional wisdom goes, the early birds have already gotten it. The wells are dry, the fields claimed, the marriages already made.
Then there’s professional self-interest itself. A kind of honor-among-thieves view. That is, if you’ve been doing this for a while, if you’ve paid your dues, if you’ve kissed appropriate asses, you shouldn’t have it taken away from you—even if you are Howard Dean, who might threaten the party with a debacle that it will take a generation to undo. Political professionals don’t like spoilers. Not least of all because the spoiler most often has less need for the political professionals.
The pros count on a heavy dose of conventional wisdom (which they themselves propound) and other negative reinforcements to keep the theoretical spoiler home.
In this view, then, the Hillary thing—the hints and whispers (the posting of coy messages on the Hillary Website)—is mostly cynical. She has no intention of running because she is not ready to run, because she does not believe that Bush is truly beatable, and because she knows the firestorm she’d face (not to mention not exactly trusting her husband not to mess things up). But what she does want to do is to be the great white hope of tomorrow. The dream. Indeed, it is possible that she becomes the Cuomo of this campaign (in 1992, Mario Cuomo had a plane on the tarmac waiting to take him to a last-minute filing for the New Hampshire primary before he finally took himself out of the race). And even when the primaries are closed and there is a certain nominee, we’ll still be hearing about Mrs. Clinton for vice-president until she finally, modestly, withdraws from that consideration. No, she is not running, she is just long-term brand-building. You have to work at inevitability.
As for the general, every political professional seems certain what this is about. It’s purely a vice-presidential deal. Truly, he’s everybody’s favorite vice-president (hence his passionate wooing by the Dean camp). But it’s ridiculous to think that he, an amateur, could seriously wage a successful presidential-primary fight—that just doesn’t happen. So he gets into the race to get himself a little campaign experience and to demonstrate for peace-loving Democrats that even though he’s a general, he’s not too generalish, all the while careful not to antagonize anyone else in the field.
Indeed, the prospect of Clark on the Dean ticket is a vastly reassuring note for political professionals. Of course, there is, too, the quite over-the-top prospect of a Clinton-Clark ticket.
There is another Clinton point that should be noted: While the present field of Democrats has been running for a year or more, and while absolutely everyone who knows anything will tell you that it really is a lock (and that the field was realistically locked up as much as six months ago), Bill Clinton, in his race for president, did not declare himself until October 1991 (his opposition included Paul Tsongas, Tom Harkin, Doug Wilder, Bob Kerrey, and Jerry Brown). He did not even set up an exploratory committee until that August.
The media point here, as opposed to the organizational point, is that one’s shelf life is limited. Surely, the standing candidates (the once-regal Kerry, the formally righteous Lieberman, the used-to-be-fresh Edwards) are lesser now—diminished brands—than when they began. Save for Dean.
The rise of Howard Dean strongly argues that the campaign for president is being most hotly waged in the Sunni triangle.
One aspect of this that has surely crossed Karl Rove’s mind is that the worse things get from Baghdad to Tikrit, the greater the likelihood that the Democrats will nominate Dean, hence ensuring the president’s reelection.
This is where the campaign is now.
In the Democratic mind, it’s Vietnam redux: We’ll back an antiwar candidate even if he’ll likely lose.
In other words, it hasn’t yet become about winning. The sense of Bush’s being truly beatable—not by anyone but by someone—hasn’t quite sunk in yet.
And if time hasn’t exactly run out on the winning thing, it will run out soon.
Fortunately, Bill Clinton hasn’t finished thinking this through.