Monday, October 5, 2009

Worst Field Ever?

I don't really share Neil Sinhababu's utter contempt for Dick Gephardt. But still, the last reporting on the former House Dem leader's lobbying career (here's Frank Rich and, via Neil, a Nation piece) is hard to square with the idea of Gephardt as a great liberal leader. Which leads me to:

Was the field of candidates for the 2004 Democratic nomination for president the worst ever? Do they all look worse than they did then?

John Kerry, I think, is the exception. Whatever his merits as the nominee, he took his loss well and has returned to business in the Senate. He isn't an all-star Senator, but he's done nothing I can think of to disgrace himself since 2004.

The rest of the field? Well, there's Gephardt, who has hired himself out to any interest group who will pay his tab. There's John Edwards...yeah. There's Joe Lieberman, already moving to the right by then, but still more or less a mainstream Democrat. I can't imagine that there are very many Democratic primary voters who, seeing what these three have done over the last five years, think that they should have been anywhere near the leadership of the party.

I think the same goes for Gen. Wesley Clark. I don't think his reputation has been exactly harmed in the intervening years, but it certainly hasn't been enhanced, either. The idea of General Clark was always more appealing to some Democrats than the actual person, and I don't know of anything Clark did in 2004 or since to build on that. The next candidate, Dennis Kucinich, retains the same reputation now that he had then, and while I think Democrats would disagree about whether Kucinich's style of liberalism is a good thing or a bad thing, it's pretty clear that almost no one thinks that the guy should be president.

That leaves Howard Dean. Like Clark, I think the idea of Dean wore better on Democrats than the actual person; unlike Clark, and unlike the rest of the pack other than Kerry, Dean has actually done things that might enhance his reputation over the last five years. I don't think that those who supported Dean in 2004 are embarrassed about it at all, and I suspect that some Edwards and even some Kerry supporters from then might have foggy memories that allow them to recall support for the Vermont doctor. Do they think he'd make a good president? I don't know, but other than Kerry I would say he's the only one of the bunch where most Democrats would consider it a close call.

Of course, this is exactly what one would expect when the incumbent president is very popular just at the time when candidates are starting to gear up for the next election. But, to me at least, it's interesting to see the reputations of the group deteriorate over time -- it looked like a weak field then, but it looks much worse now.


  1. What? No Sharpton or Moseley-Braun?

    ...or the hilarious Boondocks comic strip conspiracy theory that the DNC inserted the former Illinois senator to split the African American vote?

    On a serious note, yes, this was the worst field since the 1996 GOP field. It was a last political hurrah for Dole and after the him were Buchanan and Forbes.

    ...and everyone else.

    Side note:
    I'm continuing to wonder if Mitt Romney in 2009 has the same "great on paper" quality that Dean/Clark (and we should throw in pre-Swift Boat Kerry here, too) had in 2003 and 2004. Of course Romney had the same sort of quality in 2007, too.

  2. I totally forgot about the rest of the field in '04. (Moseley-Braun? I don't even remember that now!).

    I think the GOP '96 was better than you remember. Buchanan and Forbes, who actually received votes, were awful weak, but the rest of the field was reasonably OK, I think -- Phil Gramm, Lamar!...OK, I have to peak...Arlen Specter, Dick Lugar, Pete Wilson. Now, it also had more than its share of joke candidates (Keyes, B-1 Bob Dornan, and the immortal Morry Taylor), but I think it's on the whole a much more distinguished group than '04 Dems. Sure, Bob Dole had his weird post-political career as America's Dirty Old Man, but overall he's at least as distinguished as Kerry, and supporters of Lugar and Lamar! don't have anything to be ashamed of.

    I don't know if the idea of Romney is better than the real thing -- I'm not sure what the difference is.

    (Oh, and alas for me, my daily paper didn't carry the Boondocks for the last half of its run. I miss great comic strips).

  3. Oh, I wasn't trying to argue that the '96 GOP field came even close to rivaling that of the Dems in '04. The Democratic field then just happened to be worst since 1996. They broke new ground.

    Daily paper? Oh those! Yeah, I suppose I read the Boondocks in the Atlanta paper in the time when it was booted from the comic page to the editorial section with the other editorial cartoons. Good times for a great strip.

  4. Thinking about it...yes, '04 was awfully weak, but it didn't even have an excuse, like, say, '88 (when Biden flamed out and Cuomo dithered and Bradley hemmed and haw-ed and Nunn and Robb realised they had no chance and Clinton withdrew the day before he would have entered...)

    I do think the GOP field in '96 is worse because it's unfair to count Specter, Wilson and Lugar, the first two of whom dropped out before voting began and Lugar barely ran a campaign at all. Of the actual candidates who campaigned and were considered legitimate contenders, you had Dole -- credible, but about five or ten years past his political prime, Alexander -- genial, likeable, but hardly A-list material; Senate Conference Chairman seems about right for him, and Buchanan and Forbes, neither of whom had held elected office, neither of whom would have stood a chance against Clinton.

    The test should probably be 'how many of these candidates, regardless of their actual policy standards, might have made effective Presidents?' 'Effective' measured by relevant experience, temperament, conciliatory skills and cross-partisan appeal. From 1996 you have Dole and Alexander, discounting the also-rans who never came close to standing a chance. From 2004 you have Kerry, Edwards (personal foibles, I would argue, aside), and Lieberman, who, views aside, can actually be quite an effective legislator. If the test is 'who stood a chance of winning a general election?' it's Kerry, Edwards, and possibly Clark, as opposed to the GOP field of...well, no one. (Buchanan probably would have struggled to get triple-digit electoral votes.)

  5. So which were the best presidential fields? GOP 1980? Democrat 2008 (other than how close John Edwards came)?


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