Post-Gore Democrats

Gore is gone, and the race for the Democratic nomination in 2004 is so wide open, says one Democratic pollster, "The plausibility of why-not-me? candidacies has just exploded."

This isn't 1992, when Mario Cuomo's decision not to run failed to prompt any prominent national Democrats who'd been holding back to hop into the race. Running against Bush 43, apparently, is not the deterrent that running against Bush 41 once was. Gephardt, Lieberman, Kerry, Edwards, Dean -- and perhaps Daschle, Dodd and such wild cards as Biden, Hart, Sharpton and Clark -- this is the Democrats' A-list. Truth be told, though, it isn't much of an A-list. In particular, it has only one (former) governor, Howard Dean.

It's too early to speak with any confidence about the fate of individual candidacies but not too early to speak about what Democratic voters are looking for. They want a candidate with serious national-security bona fides, a sober and aggressive approach to deterring terrorism. They want a candidate who backs the global rule of law, who opposes the preemptive unilateralism of the administration and its diversionary, reckless war with Iraq. They want a candidate with an economic policy that helps working-class, middle-class and poor Americans, that scales back the power of corporations so that they are no longer a law unto themselves. They want real national health insurance, and with Gore out of the race, Dean will not long have this issue to himself.

By these standards, it's clear why John Kerry may have a bit of a jump on the rest of the field. His Vietnam medals -- and his early leadership of Viet Vets Against the War -- strike just the right balance for the tough-dove party the Democrats are becoming. Kerry's problem is that he's more a liberal than a populist: tough on Wall Street when the situation demands it but awkward on (if not alien to) Main Street.

The two congressional leaders have different strengths and similar liabilities. Dick Gephardt is now heir to some of Gore's institutional support. On the basis of his fair-trade record, Gephardt can plausibly hope to win support from manufacturing unions such as the United Auto Workers, but his backing among the increasingly dominant service-sector unions is iffier. ("Gephardt is really nowhere with us," says a leading official of one such union.) Any candidate who can win the national AFL-CIO's endorsement will get a leg up on the field, but winning requires two-thirds support from member unions, which will be arduous. Union insiders aren't thrilled that Gephardt failed to retake the House in four attempts, or that he's an old Beltway face. And many rank-and-file Democrats -- unionists and non-unionists alike -- don't much cotton to Gephardt's cheerleading for Bush's go-it-alone Iraqi offensive.

Tom Daschle is a conundrum. Clearly among the smartest and most articulate of Democratic hopefuls, he has nonetheless handicapped himself by his repeated failures of imagination and nerve. With Gephardt, he was the architect of the party's themeless 2002 campaign. Responsible to his colleagues for raising money on K Street and in the Silicon Valley, he kept the party from pushing for serious corporate reform earlier this year. His initial nonreaction to Trent Lott's affirmation of apartheid -- in which personal courtesy between leaders somehow trumped all moral indignation -- suggests he's been playing inside ball way too long.

Connecticut's Joe Lieberman is the biggest immediate beneficiary of Gore's decision. He's the darling of the center-right Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which could pose a problem for other DLC-ish candidates such as John Edwards (who boasts so little experience in electoral politics it's hard to imagine he's not really running for vice president). Hawkish in a dovish party, more aligned with Wall Street and its trade policies than his fellow candidates, Lieberman seems highly unlikely to win the nomination. His candidacy already recalls that of Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the Washington senator whose 1976 primary bid appealed to the minority of party voters who were defense hawks -- and hardly anyone else.

Then there are such outsiders as the odd couple of Gen. Wesley Clark and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Sharpton could take much of the black vote out of play in the primaries, with potentially disastrous consequences for the party. What the field doesn't have is a Beltway maverick, someone such as Russ Feingold, a good-government type whose "process liberalism" might play well in Iowa and New Hampshire. Feingold's a Reform Jew and Lieberman's Orthodox, rendering the Reconstructionists a key swing constituency.

I hope that clears everything up.

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