Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Inside Politics-The Democratic Party Edition

If you are among the 14 people thinking about the 2008 Presidential election, there have been some interesting developments on the Democratic side. While we may all lament the never-ending campaign that is American politics, voters cannot really blame these would-be candidates for shoring up support early, defining a unique image for themselves, and laying the groundwork for fundraising for what promises to be the most expensive election ever (it’s always the most expensive election ever). For political junkies, the fascinating part is interpreting these subtle moves and speculating over their impact in what promises to be the first election in recent memory where neither party really will has a consensus pick.

John Kerry is back in the news too, with a Meet The Press interview and some interesting comments that signal a likely 2nd Presidential campaign for the Boston Brahmin. When asked about the chances of being nominated again by Roger Simon, Kerry seemed to be a little bit agitated, and rightfully so, because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of grassroots support for another run. Most Democrats don’t seem to blame Kerry much for his loss, and even Kerry himself is trying to cast the last election as a referendum on Bush on 9/11 rather than admitting his shortcomings. Kerry will probably have more trouble raising money this time, but he has huge institutional advantages coming fresh out the 2004 campaign. But he certainly won’t have his number two man by his side this time…

John Edwards announced last week that he will be taking a position at the University of North Carolina, where he will focus on poverty issues. He also gave a speech to New Hampshire Democrats of all people, where he once again emphasized poverty as a “moral” issue. Edwards has obviously learned a few lessons from the 2004 campaign, and expect the former Senator to basically revive his “Two Americas” campaign, complete with obligatory “moral values” reframing. It’s not a stretch, of course, to call poverty a moral values issue, as Jim Wallis and others have been doing for years, but it remains to be seen whether the “values” votes for Bush reflected something bigger than just abortion and resistance to gay marriage. I am an optimist when it comes to Democrats recasting their current positions as moral choices (and adding some new language to address alcohol abuse, divorce, deadbeat dads, and domestic violence), but Edwards will have to redefine himself beyond his single fantastic stump speech, as many were disappointed with his debate performance against Cheney.

Other intelligent candidates are also trying to stake out a position on moral issues. Hillary Clinton made some widely publicized remarks on abortion that seemed to be reaching for common ground between the pro-life and pro-choice positions. Out of any of the potential candidates, Hillary will have the hardest time reinventing herself, because the majority of Americans already have strong opinions about her. She has been reliably hawkish during her time in the Senate and will attempt to pivot further on the moral issues. In addition, she will have no problem raising money for the 2008 campaign, especially compared to the other candidate. That ability makes her the odds on favorite to win the nomination right now, and that’s just way Republicans like it.

Another news item pleasing the GOP is Howard Dean’s ascension to DNC chair. While the mainstream media and the right will label this election as a leftward turn for the Democrats, Dean is far from the lefty socialist that people make him out to be. Other than his reasonable and consistent opposition to the Iraq War, Dean is a centrist. His passion and the fanatic support of his admirers made the Democratic primaries worth watching, even if it was this same excitement that forced Kerry to vote against the $87 billion and lose the election. I think Dean will be a tremendous DNC chair, not because I think he should be the standard-bearer of the party, but rather because he speaks so effectively to the base. The DNC chair position is like a head cheerleader and won’t have an impact on the 2008 election, unless Dean decides to run himself.

One man that has not made a lot of news is Evan Bayh, another potential candidate for 2008. Still, his surprising vote against Condi Rice’s nomination raised speculation that the 2nd generation politician is hedging his centrist image in hopes of winning over Democratic partisans in the 2008 primaries. Hailing from conservative Indiana with a voting record to match it, Bayh would seem well positioned to lead the Democrats back into the mainstream on values and national security issues. But the left wingers who vote in the Democratic Party may never let that happen. Bayh will present himself as the centrist alternative to Clinton but Clinton has already narrowed that gap. The “outside the beltway” persona that one candidate every four years gets to assume will likely go to Russ Feingold, not Bayh, since the Wisconsin senator can rightfully lay claim to the “maverick” label, as the lone voice against the Patriot Act in the Senate and the architect of campaign-finance reform. Feingold’s eclectic mix of policy positions may make him a surprise success in 2008.

Other dark horses include Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, the subject of a recent The New Republic cover story, Mark Warner of Virginia, and Bill Richardson of New Mexico. Compared to the 2004 Democratic field, this group is accomplished and deep, and many surprises could unfold as the road to 2008 begins in earnest after the midterm elections.

My prediction? Hilary, Edwards, Bayh, and Feingold fight it out to the end, with Hilary winning California and New York to clinch victory. On the Republican side? I’ll save that for next time.

R.C.

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