Friday, January 16, 2004
John Podhoretz is a very smart political observer (and participant). I'm a pretty lousy one. I tend to think the guy who I think should be winning is winning, which is a pretty fatal flaw. Back when I was a Democrat, I thought Bob Kerry was the guy to beat in 1992. By the time I was a Republican, in 1996, I thought Phil Gramm was the coming thing, since Bob Dole was so obviously hapless. So what do I know. I should just listen to John P.
But I'll throw my 2c in anyhow.
First, an index to the fluidity of this race is the level of support for Joe Lieberman. Lieberman has absolutely no chance of winning the nomination. So to the extent that polls still show support for him, that's a sign of people not paying attention to the campaign. A Kerry or Edwards victory in Iowa could radically reshape media coverage of the campaign, and radically change the polls in states where, currently, they are polling at near zero. Lieberman has put a lot of resources into South Carolina relative to his total budget, but he's outpolling Kerry and Edwards in Arizona, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Missouri, Virginia and Wisconsin as well. That's all name-recognition. An Iowa victory by Kerry or Edwards should do something to improve their name recognition, I should think.
Second, I think Dean is quite vulnerable right now, though I agree that he's still the frontrunner. If he loses both Iowa and New Hampshire - or if he loses Iowa and squeaks by in New Hampshire - he could easily go into free-fall. Why? Because the next batch of states is very uncongenial to him. Feb 3rd the states that vote are South Carolina, Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, Oklahoma, plus caucuses in North Dakota and New Mexico. On Feb 10th are Tennessee and Virginia. None of these states are prime Dean territory. Yeah, he's got piles of money and dedicated supporters, and he currently leads in the polls or polls second in all sorts of places. But I'd bet his really hard-core support is the Northeast, Northwest and the progressive states of the Midwest (e.g. Wisconsin). His support in the Feb 3rd and Feb 10th states rests, I suspect, to a great extent on his front-runner status. Dent that badly, and he could lose badly for two weeks. And it'll be hard to recover after that. Indeed, free-fall could start before New Hampshire if Dean comes in third in Iowa - which is entirely possible, given how fluid the situation there seems to be.
Third, I don't see how Gephardt wins. He's the only candidate with no clear way to raise a lot of money. Dean has the internet, Kerry has his wife, Clark has the Clinton fundraising network, Edwards has the Clinton network if Clark flames out plus he has his trial lawyer friends. Gephardt is also in the weakest position of the Edwards-Kerry-Gephardt trio on Feb 3rd. His victory in Missouri won't count for anything (favorite son and all) and he's not been a big presence in the other contending states (not to mention that they aren't big union states, and industrial unions are his main source of support). Plus Gephardt will be a non-factor in New Hampshire even if he wins Iowa decisively, so the headlines after New Hampshire will be about something else: the return of Dean, the rise of Clark, the surprise of Kerry - it doesn't matter what, it won't be about him. If he won Iowa by a mile, that would be one thing. But he won't win by a mile, and he's not going to get much credit for winning it by a whisker.
Fourth, I think Clark has to prove he can win something by Feb 3rd. I don't think he has until Feb 10th. If Clark loses New Hampshire by a whisker, he should win South Carolina, Arizona and Oklahoma, and that should be enough to make him the front-runner. If he loses all of these states, even if he comes in second everywhere, I think he's in real trouble. If Clark comes in third to Al Sharpton in South Carolina, who won? Dean? Edwards? If it's Edwards, then Dean came in fourth, which would be pretty devastating, but there's no front-runner, 'cause Gephardt won Missouri and Clark hasn't won anything yet. If it's Dean, then Dean is cruising to victory. So I think Clark has to do better on Feb 3rd; if he can't win South Carolina with Clinton's endorsement (posited by Podhoretz), he's toast.
Fifth, I appreciate that Podhoretz is a serious commentator and doesn't have time to waste on idle speculation, but still: why miss the chance to speculate about (even if only to debunk) a non-decision? We could possibly have no victor by Feb 3rd: Kerry, Edwards and Gephardt tie for victory in Iowa, with Dean a close fourth; Dean wins New Hampshire by a whisker with Clark and Kerry roughly tied for second; Edwards roughly ties Clark for victory in South Carolina, with Sharpton tied with Dean close behind them; Oklahoma and Arizona similarly indecisive, with Dean doing strong enough in both to stay in the game; Gephardt wins Missouri with Dean second and Clark third . . . with proportional assignment of delegates, we could come out of Feb 3rd with nobody clearly in the lead and "Draft Hillary" the most popular slogan among Democrats.
Well, that's not gonna happen. But you know, I could live with any of the professional politicians running on the Democratic side as President. Gephardt wouldn't do too much damage, even if he'd uninspiring. Kerry the same. Edwards seems like a reasonably quick study. But Dean is awful and Clark is bizarre. And victory over either would have negative consequences for a second Bush term. Bush will run against Dean on the culture war and the war on terror, which means the second-term mandate in domestic policy won't exist - indeed, Bush will be sorely tempted to list to the left to win blue-collar votes away from Dean in droves. And I think Clark-Bush would just be ugly and personal, like Bush-Dukakis in 1988 but worse. So I hope the good people of Iowa nominate somebody decent instead. And that hope is, I'm sure, coloring my judgement, as it always seems to.