Unless Paul Tsongas re-enters the Democratic presidential nominating race, or unless another nationally known Democrat takes the plunge, and quickly, it seems certain that Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown will destroy each other within a fortnight. And that could guarantee a Republican landslide in November, which not only would reelect President Bush but also bring down Democratic congressional, state and local candidates in a disaster comparable to that of 1972.
Polling data in New York, a state that must be won in November if any Democratic presidential candidate is to win nationally, indicate that a majority of Democratic voters there wish that someone other than Clinton and Brown were in the race. In New York, as elsewhere, Democrats, Republicans and independents continue to express doubt that front-runner Clinton possesses the integrity or honesty to serve as President.
The situation Clinton faced in February, just before the New Hampshire primary, has worsened demonstrably. Not only has he generally pleaded nolo contendere to initial charges of marital infidelity and Vietnam era draft evasion. The Arkansas governor also has been plagued by a series of conflict-of-interest charges, which he has failed to rebut convincingly.
Instead, Clinton has continued his campaign-long practice of attacking the media that make the charges or the opposition candidates (Tsongas, Brown) who dare to raise them in debate. At the same time, in his own campaign, he has not hesitated to distort his opponents' records. He did this in the Florida primary with scurrilous charges and false campaign literature insinuating that Tsongas was anti-Social Security and anti-Israel.
These tactics have elicited a predictable response from the voters: They don't trust Clinton. Over the course of the campaign, they are unlikely to change their minds.
In normal circumstances, former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. might be considered a viable alternative. His campaign-reform and campaign-finance proposals are right on the mark. Yet his kamikaze attacks on Clinton, some accurate, some sloppily off the mark, have alienated voters as well. And his flat-tax and value-added-tax proposals--the former grossly regressive, the latter regressive and inflationary--will wound him mortally once voters understand them. Both notions have been vetted and rejected over more than a decade by all but the Daddy Warbucks true believers on the economic far right. Coming from a Democratic presidential aspirant, they are incredible.
What can save the Democrats from their dilemma?
First, Tsongas could re-enter the race by the simple device of announcing resumption of his candidacy. His campaign was suspended two weeks ago, not terminated. His name and delegates continue on the ballot in several primary states, including New York. He continues to receive federal matching funds. The former senator from Massachusetts got 20% of the vote in Connecticut last week even after announcing his withdrawal from the race. New York polling indicates that he may run well there next week. Voters clearly miss his constructive and substantive message.
Failing a Tsongas re-entry, any one of three Democrats would win the gratitude of the party if he were to come forward now as an alternative to Clinton and Brown. They are New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, now on the verge of completing the state budget, the obligation that he said precluded his candidacy earlier, and Sens. Al Gore of Tennessee and Lloyd Bentsen of Texas. Any one of them would have considerable voter appeal in the late primaries.
Should that not happen, then the last chance for nominating a viable presidential candidate would come at the party's July convention in New York. There, a first-ballot deadlock between Clinton and Brown could lead the delegates to turn to Tsongas, Cuomo, Gore or Bentsen--or even Jimmy Carter or Walter Mondale. But this possibility is a small one, indeed. If Clinton and Brown remain the only contenders in the race, one of them will have enough delegates for first-ballot nomination, and a brokered convention would be impossible.
Now is the time for one or several good Democrats to come to the aid of their party. The alternative could be an electoral disaster, not only keeping President Bush in the White House but also putting the Senate and the House effectively in the control of Republicans who will resist the changes the country needs so badly.