Some Thoughts on the Upcoming Presidential Primaries and the Election

The Thinker by Rodin

The presidential primary season is about to begin in earnest on Monday. That is the day when Democrats in Iowa will caucus. Eight days later New Hampshire voters will go to the polls to select their favorite candidate. Whoever wins these primaries will doubtless hope to ride these early victories all the way to the nomination. However, if history is any guide many of those now campaigning like mad in both states might have been better off skipping these states altogether. That’s because neither Iowa nor New Hampshire has a great track record picking the candidate who ultimately will win the nomination. So Wesley Clark may be smart to avoid Iowa. Let the others throw money at each other while he conserves his cash, organizes the key southern states, then hits them big on February 3rd and on Super Tuesday. It’s a smart strategy.

I found online results of both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary going back to 1972. I excluded those years when an incumbent was running, and looked only at the Democratic primaries in these states. Both states are batting .500 in picking the eventually nominee. In baseball terms this is a great score, but not here. The best that can be said for winning in these early primaries is that the name recognition may improve a candidate’s odds. But that’s about all that can be said for it. It costs a hell of a lot of time and money to even compete in these states. Part of this is because there are a plethora of candidates for the party out of office in these early caucuses and primaries. If Iowa and New Hampshire have a job, it’s to winnow the candidates’ list down.

The primaries on Feb 3rd should be far more telling. Why? Because the states participating are more moderate states than either New Hampshire or Iowa. On that date Democrats in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Carolina will vote. If I had to pick a bell weather state among these, I’d pick Arizona. Traditionally a fairly conservative state, it has been trending Democratic more and more these days. This is due to a very fast growing population, many of whom migrated from northern states. If I had to bet money (and of course I am rooting for Howard Dean) I’d say the Democrat that wins Arizona will win the nomination.

I proclaim no special prognostication skills when it comes to the primaries and the general election. The tightness of the race in Iowa, according to polls, indicates it is up for grabs. My sense is that Howard Dean will win Iowa. I suspect he will win it by about 5%. I believe it because he has a fanatical youth following. They will turn out for him and work for him in droves. My sense from attending four Dean Meetups is that this will be the real big surprise of the 2004 election. Both parties will wake up and discover that a critical mass of younger adults (those under 30) is now politically engaged. It’s about time Generations X and Y woke up from their lethargy. Maybe they were too young to remember Reagan, and took the wonderful and prosperous 90s for granted. Perhaps now they have woken up to what Republicanism has done to our country. It appears that they don’t find it very agreeable.

In the longer term the odds will still favor Dean simply because he has a network in place and he has the money (and can get a lot more when needed). Dean’s biggest problem will be his mouth. The campaign in Iowa suggests that going negative against his fellow Democrats is turning away voters. He will have to tone down those remarks in the future and direct his anger at the Republicans instead.

I’ve thought for about a month now that the Democratic nomination will eventually be fought out between Dean and Clark. I don’t think we will get run of the mill Capitol Hill politician as the nominee this time around. Voters seem to be saying they want someone different and unconventional. If I have been surprised lately it is how quickly Wes Clark is catching up in the polls after having been drubbed down to near the back of the pack after his initial fast start. His campaign has finally come together. He is generating serious money from a large network of supporters. This is causing the Dean campaign to look over its shoulders in worry. Although Dean is still ahead in New Hampshire, I would not be surprised if Clark ultimately wins in New Hampshire. New Hampshire has a history of loving mavericks, as it did in 2000 when it picked John McCain over George W. Bush. But it likes conservative mavericks more than liberal mavericks. Although Dean is really a centrist, Clark is perceived as a centrist and that may be the critical factor in New Hampshire.

Once the nominee is decided then the real battle for the general election begins. It will be a tough campaign for Democrats to win, but it could easily swing either way based on a number of topical issues, such as the ever-present U.S. economy or happenings in Iraq. As much as I like Dean, I tend to agree with the Clark people that Clark has better odds of fairing better against Bush on national security issues in the general election. So if Clark wins the nomination I won’t shed too many tears for Dean. I could back Clark enthusiastically. He just seems a bit suspicious to me because he only recently became a Democrat. I don’t know where his heart really lies.

Clearly the election will be fought over two issues: national security and the economy. On the national security issue Bush will appear to have the advantage, but either Clark or Dean are smart enough to know how to expose the fraud that is our war in Iraq. Clark is more likely to pick off Southern states for the Democrats. But I am dubious that the Democrats need the South to win this time. Based on the popular vote in 2000 we didn’t need the south, except Florida. If we can hold what we won in 2000 and pick up a couple states we can win the election. Bush is beatable. So don’t give too much credence to polls this far out from the election. The vast majority of Americans can’t yet name a single Democratic candidate for president.

The best issue for the Democrats on the economy will be the large net job loss (likely to exceed two million jobs) during Bush’s term. He will be the first president since Herbert Hoover to have a net job loss in his term, and it’s hard to see how that will work to his advantage. Numbers like the December employment statistics (where jobs grew by only 1000 jobs) must make Karl Rove nervous. This appears to be a jobless recovery. The result is a lot of unemployed people competing for the same number of jobs, playing a dispiriting game of musical chairs with each other. Democrats will need to get them to the polls.

I tend to agree with my friend Frank Pierce that the Democrats need to play up the issue of outsourcing. We’ve been outsourcing blue-collar jobs for decades, but outsourcing white-collar jobs is a new phenomenon and troubling for many of us who felt secure with our college degrees. Those who have been outsourced more often than not find themselves making half of their previous income. Democrats need to paint the vision of a nation of clerks working at Wal-Mart if the Republicans stay in charge.

It is a shame the voters won’t focus as much on the federal deficits (which are the largest in history) or Bush’s exorbitant tax cuts for the rich, or the way he is wrecking our environment. Voters as a class seem to care more about short-term than long-term issues. Doubtless the Democrats will leverage them if they can. Of all these issues the federal deficit is the most compelling. Traditionally voters have agreed that the government should live within its means. It is ironic that the Democrats can make the better claim of being the party with a track record on financially responsibility.

Ultimately the Democratic nominee must simply promise more pragmatic and progressive stewardship like Bill Clinton delivered. His was a legacy of real prosperity unmatched in over lives. It should make the difference in many swing states. An appeal to a return to the “Great 90s” might swing the election.

Thoughts on Dean vs. Clark

The Thinker by Rodin

Wesley Clark’s campaign has rocketed out to the stratosphere, despite problems that should be crippling like a virtual lack of organization. I guess a lot of uncommitted Democrats were just hoping and waiting for him to say “yes”. Look at him go! He announces and the following week he is leading the pack, at least according to Gallup which did a poll for CNN and USA Today. This poll shows Clark leading the Democratic candidates for president by a large margin: 22% vs. 13% for Dean, his closest competitor. The same poll says that if the election were held today between Bush and Clark that Clark would win 48 percent to 46%. (Bush’s approval rating is down to a record low of 50%, according to this poll.)

It must be about image because it can’t be about substance. So far Wes has been pretty silent on substance beyond vague generalities. He’s actually stumbled a few times, suggesting in Tampa that if he had been in Congress he might have voted for the war with Iraq, then back tracking. I doubt those who were polled heard these little gaffes.

Dean, who was used to being in the limelight, is now back in the pack and playing the challenger role again. Meanwhile on his website he is challenging his supporters to contribute $5M over the next 10 days. It’s an audacious goal. Will he make it? If he doesn’t some will say he is losing momentum, perhaps at the expense of Clark. I did my part and gave Howard another $50.

I’m still trying to understand the Wesley Clark phenomenon. I understand the Dean phenomenon pretty well. Dean articulated a clear antiwar message and put together a savvy internet marketing team. He tapped the energy of those who wanted to change this country and empowered them by putting them together in MeetUps. He has to spend little of his time or attention on fundraising. This helps him concentrate on campaigning. The other candidates, except Clark, are still trying to figure out what hit them. They were operating under the old rules.

I think there is something in the American character that likes guys riding high in the saddle. Bush gave this illusion and perhaps that’s why he won a narrow victory in 2000. Democrats want to look up and admire someone too. Clark gives them the image of someone who is supremely capable and competent. It can be intoxicating. And we Democrats want to win so badly in 2004. Clark looks like the obvious choice, at least at the moment.

But Democrats also need to look rather seriously at this guy. He is a Johnny come lately Democrat. He candidly admits he voted for Reagan and Bush, both times. I certainly like his position on the war and the United Nations, but given that he has mostly worn conservative credentials it makes me wonder how sincere a Democrat and liberal he really is.

Those looking for vast right wing conspiracies might also consider vast Clinton conspiracies. Bill Clinton has let it slip that Wesley Clark is his man. Maybe it’s because he’s from Arkansas. Or maybe since Bill represents the moderate, centrist Democrat he thinks he has outfoxed Howard Dean by picking Wes. Clinton probably perceives Dean as unelectable and too liberal, and found a way to bring his perfect man into the running to ride the growing tide of disenchantment against Bush.

It remains to be seen if the Clark candidacy has wings. He may be smart, but he’s never run for office before and there is a steep learning curve. He is bound to say the wrong things from time to time, and come across as ill prepared. It may not matter if voters, as they seem to be, are more concerned with personality than they are with issues.

But it is way too early to rule out Howard Dean. This is the Democrat with the money and with the organizational skills that the others seem to lack. He can still collect money hand over fist via the Internet simply whenever his campaign manager, Joe Trippi, wants to. He just puts another Louisville Slugger bat on the web site and the money pours in. That money buys a lot of media attention. Moreover Dean, unlike any other candidate, has grass roots. He has people turbo charged, not so much because they think he is the ideal candidate, but because he has them believing they are empowered.

I am impressed far more with Dean’s supporters than I am with Dean himself. Most of the reason I give him money is because he can feed the energy of these people. This is one determined bunch of people, and they are talking to everyone they know. Don’t think they plan to stop with Howard Dean’s election. They want more. Much more. They want to take back the congress and the country. They want to reverse the last four years. They want to drive a stake through the heart of neoconservatism. He has lots of supporters but most of them are 20 or 30 somethings. In other words he has energized the disenfranchised younger voters, got them to care, and got them to organize. And they will vote in much larger numbers in 2004.

This may well turn into a tsunami a year from now. If Clark is the better candidate so be it. But don’t dismiss the Dean phenomenon. It is much more real and it has legs. I’ve caught the wave too. I’ll be going to my first official meet up for Dean on October 1st at the Chantilly, Virginia regional library. I hope to see some of you there. I want to be part of this energy. I want to take back my country.

A few concerns about Wesley Clark

The Thinker by Rodin

So Wes Clark is finally in the presidential race. He’s been playing coy with the American public for months now about running for president, which is probably a smart political move since it puts him in the public limelight without the expense of having to run a campaign. He sure has sounded like a candidate for the last few months. And I can understand why his running for president would excite a lot of people and perhaps pull in some wavering Republicans big on national security but disgusted with Bush’s foreign policy. Every vote against Bush is needed.

I’m trying to figure out what it is about him that is giving me second thoughts. It is hard for me to articulate. Maybe it’s a gut political instinct. Maybe I’ve invested too much of my hard earned time and money in Howard Dean. Or maybe it’s because I’m leery of focusing on ex-Generals as a way to solve our national problems.

I’ve read a number of articles that are not the least bit complementary about him. He has pissed off a large number of subordinates and people in the military. This isn’t that unusual; really strong and motivated people tend to do this by default. And in my opinion the DoD could use more officers willing to take some chances.

But depending on whom you read, his work as commander of our air war in Kosovo and Serbia was either brilliant or he was dangerously arrogant. Some say he threatened a new world war by forbidding the Russians from landing any more troops at an airfield in that area. One general under his command actually refused his direct orders on the subject. Russia was supposed to be helping out in the war but, of course, it had long existing ties with Serbia. Clark also got permission to use depleted uranium weapons on the battlefield. Such weapons were also used in Iraq, in both of our latest wars there, and are allegedly causes of a lot of problems including polluted water supplies and increased cancers in the region. It’s not easy to clean up after these weapons either.

His military career also went down on a sour note when he was essentially fired as NATO commander three months early.

On the other hand he is a decorated Vietnam era veteran, was awarded the Purple Heart, and has distinguished himself on virtually every assignment he ever had. People who consider him haughty and arrogant will, at the same time, also admit he is about the most brilliant, creative and resourceful man they have ever met. Clark, like Dean was an early and frequent critic of President Bush’s inadvisable war with Iraq. I have to like him for such a bold stand that flew in the face of conventional wisdom.

But he has zero domestic credentials. He has never held elective office. The last time he ran for anything it was for president of his homeroom class, and he lost. One cannot succeed in the military without mastering politics, but he has no credentials as a politician. He has never voted for anything. He himself admits he has a steep learning curve ahead of him as he tries to stake out his positions on domestic policies. Dean has walked this walk as two terms of a governor of a state, and has balanced budgets and made hard decisions. But of course Dean lacks in foreign policy experience what Clark lacks in domestic experience. Perhaps those things even the two out.

Perhaps what worries me the most about him is that if he is elected president he may become yet another arrogant person in the Oval Office convinced of his own infallibility. This could lead the country again down dangerous directions. I don’t get that feeling from Dean, although he certainly can be passionate about those things he believes in. I am also very suspicious of military people as president in general. I don’t agree that success in the military arena translates into success in the political arena.

So I see no reason to rush out and embrace the guy. I do heartily subscribe to the ABB (Anyone But Bush) philosophy. I will even hold my nose and vote for Liebermann if I have to. Bush is a disaster as a president any anyone of our candidates would be an improvement over him.

To the average voter positions don’t matter as much as personality. Gore had no personality that anyone could relate to. Bush didn’t have much but he seemed firm about his convictions and that was enough to win him an election. Clark and Dean are people with large personalities and ego, and they are both articulate and convincing in front of a microphone. None of the other candidates have any stage presence.

I’ll pretend I am from the show me state and try to not let my biases get in the way of independently assessing Wesley Clark. But for now I see no reason to stop devoting my time and energy to electing Howard Dean as our next president.