January 19, 2006
Presidential Prizefight '08
Versus Electability in Both Parties (Part II: The Democrats)
week's installment of the Crystal Ball, we explored the myriad
of possible Republican White House contenders for 2008, the lack
of an obvious successor to President Bush, as well as the wide
open nature of the 2008 party primaries. This is only the fifth
time since the dawn of the twentieth century that the incumbent
President or Vice President has not been running--the earlier
examples were 1908, 1920, 1928, and 1952.
And now to
the Democrats. The most compelling element of the 2008 contest
for the Democrats, in the Crystal Ball's view, will be their burning
desire to end GOP control of the White House. George W. Bush's
reign will have extended over eight years, but to Democrats, who
deeply despise this President, it has already seemed like an eternity.
Hatred of a President among party activists can produce wise or
unwise outcomes. Democratic true believers may incorrectly think
that their fellow citizens fully share their opinion of Bush and
will inevitably elect the person they choose as their nominee
in order to punish the Republicans for Bush's multitudinous sins.
Or Democrats may allow reason to triumph over emotion by picking
a nominee who does not fulfill all their liberal fantasies but
has a good chance of winning.
of the Washington punditocracy is betting that Democratic ideology
will once again trample electability, producing a left-wing or
controversial presidential candidate who will elect McCain, Allen,
or whoever secures the GOP nod. The Crystal Ball understands this,
given the Democratic Party's modern history, but we choose the
opposite scenario. We guess that, for once (or more, if you count
Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992), Democrats will
select a more moderate, possible winner--perhaps after an early
flirtation or two with more ideologically pleasing contenders.
of "liberal" and "conservative" are a bit
arbitrary for intra-party comparisons, since if you got these
Democrats in a room and put the session off-the-record, we'd bet
there wouldn't be much difference substantively on 95 percent
of the big issues facing the nation. But the ideological distinction
is still crucial, since it will enable some Democrats to package
themselves, via paid and free media (that is, TV ads and the press),
as closer to the ideological midpoint of the electorate. For the
White House, moderate Democrats have a better chance of winning,
and liberal Democrats usually lose.
prominent liberal candidate for 2008 unmistakably recognizes this
reality. Senator Hillary Clinton of New York has been trying to
move to the middle by taking a few unexpected stands, such as
sponsoring legislation to ban flag-burning, and taking a Bush-lite
position on the Iraq war. Sen. Clinton has many fine qualities,
including impressive intelligence, political savvy, and broad-based
experience that is unparalleled in the 2008 Democratic field.
The amount of money she will raise is awe-inspiring, nearly certain
to break all records in both parties. However, Sen. Clinton is
the very essence of controversy, as she has just proven again
with her Martin Luther King Day race-card remark comparing the
Republican-run House of Representatives to a "plantation".
Whatever her specific stands, she is perceived, probably irrevocably,
as a liberal by most Americans. She would also be the first woman
President, and no matter what people tell pollsters about their
open-minded willingness to have a female commander-in-chief, there
could be a significant electoral cost on account of gender bias.
There are also personal adjectives imputed to Senator Clinton
that are unattractive, such as "cold," "devious,"
and "harsh." Maybe this portrait is unfair, maybe it
is untrue. But it is reality, and the reality will be ignored
by Democrats at their considerable peril.
Mrs. Clinton has many pieces of baggage left over from her husband's
administration, including scandals that involved her--and a thousand
unanswered questions about them. A presidential campaign by Mrs.
Clinton will reopen those controversies, and legitimize the old
doubts about her and the relationship with her husband. After
all, should she be elected, Bill Clinton would be moving back
into the White House. President Clinton may be more popular these
days as he settles into the less controversial role of former
President, but that status would be revoked as he auditioned for
the role of First Gentleman. While most Americans are willing
to let bygones be bygones for this former President, they do not
necessarily want to give him a new lease on the White House in
an encore presentation of "two for the price of one."
To sum up: The nomination of Hillary Clinton would be an enormous
gamble by Democrats. Instead of a laser-like focus on the inadequacies
of the Bush administration, the campaign might well turn out,
at least in good part, to be rehash of the mistakes and scandals
of the Clinton years. The GOP nominee might get a pass, positioned
as an unsullied alternative, while Americans sought to turn the
page on both the Clinton and Bush eras after 16 consecutive years
of two-family rule.
liberal candidates may be even less credible as a winning Democratic
nominee. John Kerry had his chance in 2004, and few are anxious
to repeat that experience. John Edwards has shrewdly picked the
underclass as his issue (even before Hurricane Katrina), but his
thin public office resume and weak base of support in North Carolina
are serious obstacles; he also had his first, best chance in 2004.
Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin is a fine fellow, an honest, principled
public official, but he is well to the left, has no real appeal
in most Red States (especially in the South), and would test the
limits of Americans' tolerance in a couple of ways (he is twice
divorced and Jewish). His relatively early call for withdrawal
from Iraq has made him a liberal favorite among bloggers and activists,
a la Howard Dean in '04, so he cannot be dismissed in the Democrats'
nominating process. Still, Feingold, under most circumstances,
would be an easy mark for the Republicans in the fall. Sen. Joe
Biden of Delaware will have had 35 years of Senate experience
by 2008, and few know foreign policy as well. Yet his tiny base
in Delaware, limited fund-raising potential, and off-putting speaking
style make him quite a long-shot. Biden's performance in the Alito
confirmation hearings did nothing to help him, either, and few
graduates of Princeton University will be signing up for his campaign,
we suspect. Some liberal Democrats keep talking about Al Gore
and Howard Dean, but neither one will, or should, run.
Democrats have several options, but one now stands out above the
rest. Governor Mark Warner has just finished a successful stint
in Virginia's top job, having well managed a difficult fiscal
situation and also having elected a more liberal successor, Tim
Kaine, in a conservative Red State. Warner built an attractive
record in a wide variety of areas, from education to mental health
to the environment, and he truly made the most of the one four-year
term to which Virginia's Constitution still limits its governors,
consecutively. Although a certified suburban yuppie, Warner made
deep inroads in rural areas by lavishing attention upon rural
people and their problems. He adopted NASCAR, country music, and
an antipathy to gun control. With roots in Indiana and Connecticut,
not just Virginia, Warner has the wealth and the appeal to run
an impressive national campaign. Southern Democrats and many DLCers
have flocked to him especially in the wake of Warner's 2005 off-year
triumph in November. Having praised Caeser, Brutus should note
Warner's drawbacks as a presidential candidate. The rich communications
mogul has only served a total of four years in public office;
he has no foreign policy experience at all; and he famously broke
his insistent, George H.W. Bush-like 2001 campaign pledge that
he would not raise taxes. Whether Democrats or the country as
a whole actually care about any of these sour notes, only the
2008 campaign itself will demonstrate.
Bayh of Indiana is yet another respectable, mediagenic, family-oriented
moderate with presidential ambitions. In the deeply Red Hoosier
state, Bayh has won two landslide elections as governor and two
as senator. These eleven Midwestern electoral votes, possibly
combined with the twenty from neighboring Ohio, might be deducted
from the GOP and added to the Democratic column by Bayh--making
a Republican presidential victory difficult mathematically. A
Warner-Bayh or Bayh-Warner ticket could be well nigh unbeatable,
with Warner adding Virginia's thirteen electoral votes and probably
West Virginia's five. The total of forty-nine electoral votes
from these four Red states (OH, IN, VA, WV) would be nearly impossible
for the GOP to make up, should this come to pass. Republicans
need not worry: The Virginia-Indiana pairing makes so much political
sense that the Democrats will never actually do it. This is not
to say that Bayh has no disadvantages. The good senator is, well,
boring and cautious to a fault. Even well funded, as he is likely
to be, it is difficult to imagine how he gets traction in a large
Bill Richardson of New Mexico is a three-fer: a natural executive,
a Westerner for a party that needs to crack the Southwest code,
and a public official of unusually rich experience (congressman,
UN ambassador, energy secretary, diplomat extraordinaire, and
so on). Oh, and did we mention that he's Hispanic, a member of
the most fought-after ethnic grouping in America today? Rumors
about his amorous personal life notwithstanding, if Richardson
decides to run, he'll be a factor at the least. Rounding out the
moderate subset for the Democrats is two-term Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack,
a finalist for VP on John Kerry's ticket in '04, and retired Gen.
Wesley Clark, an unsuccessful presidential candidate last time
out. Both fall into the dark-horse category at the starting gate.
Vilsack is more credible as a candidate than Clark, having been
a successful governor of a critical launching pad for presidents.
Of course, if Vilsack competes in Iowa, he may keep others out,
thereby ruining the caucuses on the Democratic side. In addition,
if he doesn't clean up on caucus night, he's set up for a comedown,
courtesy of his home state voters. Clark made more sense in 2004,
and he didn't do well then. With no elective office to his credit,
Clark will have a difficult time; while a bright, able public
servant, he is no Dwight Eisenhower.
candidates are just as possible on the Democratic side as the
Republican. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois would automatically
land in the top tier the instant he announced. He says he won't
run in '08, and likely he is telling the truth--though the VP
slot is a real possibility for this charismatic African-American.
the presidential contest will be decided in November 2008 by the
big issues of war and peace, the economy, and scandal. Yet the
personalities, characters, and positioning of the candidates loom
large as well. Should one party pick a nominee who is manifestly
closer to the nation's large moderate, independent pool of voters,
that party will be on track to victory--especially if the other
party has selected a standard-bearer widely viewed as an ideologue
of left or right. The age-old clash of ideology versus electability
will be visible on both sides of the partisan divide in 2008.
The party that veers nearer to the practical pole of electability
will be more likely to prevail at the voting polls in November.
Sabato, the Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Politics at the University
of Virginia, founded the Center
for Politics in 1998.