Friday, August 29, 2003
It's official: John Kerry is melting down.
Why have I taken so long to say this? Well, for a few reasons.
My money has been on Kerry from the beginning. I thought that of the announced candidates he was the most plausible to take the nomination, for three reasons:
First, he's the only candidate acceptable to every wing and interest-group of the party. Gephardt has no base among upscale, white-collar "symbolic analysts" or in the media. Dean has no support among blacks. Lieberman is deeply distrusted by liberals. Edwards and Graham have no support among anybody.
Second, he's a proven winner, most recently in his tough re-election fight against popular Republican governor William Weld. By contrast, Dean is relatively unproven, Gephardt's a proven loser, and Lieberman has been resting on his laurels since his first Senate victory in 1988. Winners win. Losers lose.
Third, he's got the Heinz fortune to get him through a tough fundraising patch.
Of course, he's a terrible candidate. But, remembering Dole in 1996 and Dukakis in 1988, I thought that didn't matter. If you're the only plausible winner in a lousy field, you win, even if you are also lousy. If you are the default choice, and no one comes around to knock you out, you win, even if you don't do much in your own favor. That's why my money was on Kerry.
So why am I wavering?
Well, after the most recent New Hampshire poll, the Kerry contract on the Iowa Electronic Markets has dropped below 25% for the first time since the contract started trading. And the rest-of-field contract (unaccountably, there's still no Dean contract trading) has broken above 50% for the first time.
The rest-of-field contract has been quite volatile, reflecting disenchantment with the field as it stands as much as enthusiasm for Dean or any other alternative candidate. But the Kerry has sat like a rock at 30% since February, through a May-June Gephardt boomlet, through the steady decline in Lieberman's fortunes and the fluctuations in the prospects for a Hillary white-knight candidacy. No longer.
I trust the IEM. They've been a better predictor than any poll - as they should be, because they digest the collective wisdom of all the polls. If they show Kerry in free-fall, he's in free fall.
Here's what the primary schedule looks like:
Jan 19: Iowa Caucus.
Jan 27: New Hampshire Primary
Feb 3: Arizona Primary, Missouri Primary, South Carolina Primary (and others)
Feb 7: Michigan Caucus
After Feb 7, the primary season is basically over unless a white knight comes in and scrambles everything a la RFK in '68.
Edwards and Graham will drop out after New Hampshire if they haven't before then. They will be lucky to get VP nods.
Gephardt will probably stick around through Feb 3, but if he loses Iowa and New Hampshire, he'll know he's toast. No points for winning Missouri as a favorite son, and he's not leading anywhere else. If he wins Iowa, he'll stick around through Michigan trying desperately to stop the Dean juggernaut. But if Dean looks stalled by then, and no front-runner has emerged, the party leaders are going to be banging on HRC's door.
Lieberman will also probably stick around through Feb 3, because his big hope is to win South Carolina and hopefully some of the other states in play that day on the strength of conservative white support plus black support. He's still polling marginally ahead in South Carolina, but we'll see how long that lasts. If he doesn't do very, very well in the conservative states on Feb 3, he's outta there. And he might drop out sooner if the cash runs out.
I think Lieberman is going to come under pressure from the Kerry camp to form a united "Stop Dean" front before the primaries even start. Lieberman clearly believes that a Dean nomination would be a disaster. If it's clear that Lieberman cannot win the nomination (to the extent that isn't already clear) then Kerry can very credibly say: look, Joe, you're out, I'm not, and neither of us wants Dean to win. I need your support to win veterans, more religious voters, and to lock up the black vote. That'll give me the nomination. Whatever cabinet post you want; you pick, it's yours. Joe just might listen to reason. And it might be the best way to save a Kerry candidacy.
If I were a Democrat, would I want Kerry to win at this point? I don't know. If Dean flames out on his own, losing badly in a debate or committing some horrible gaffe or too obviously shifting his positions in response to polls, then much of the party leadership will sigh with relief and move on. But if the establishment gangs up to crush the insurgent, that'll presage disaster in the general election - and a worse disaster in 2008, as the angry left seeks revenge. Think 1968 followed by 1972. So my bet is that, just as Lieberman will get a call from Kerry if Dean continues to surge, Hillary Rodham Clinton will get a calls from a whole bunch of party mandarins: save us from this crazy doctor.
Should she do it? Hard to say. She'd run a more competitive race than any of the alternatives. She'd keep the party united. And she wouldn't necessarily be unable to run in 2008 if she lost. True, Democrats haven't renominated losers in recent years. But they haven't had an obvious, universally agreed-upon standard-bearer since Adlai Stevenson, and they renominated him. Dean's new line is: he's the only one who can beat George Bush because he's the only one who can fire up the base. I have a feeling that line won't work so well with HRC in the race.