The presidential election of 2000 was one of the low points of modern U.S. politics. But the upcoming 2004 nomination contests have the potential to be exciting. Either or both conventions could be electrifying affairs.
Democrats may have the first multi-ballot convention since 1952, which could be a disaster or an unexpected opportunity. Republicans, who set their convention in New York City so President Bush could return to the scene of his apparent post-9/11 political triumph, might find Manhattan circa 2004 a much less friendly international stage. There may be more FBI agents and uniformed military people in town than visiting politicians.
When Democratic delegates head to Boston for their late July convention, they might not have an obvious nominee. This possibility flies in the face of the party's record of the last three decades. Each time, the leading contender who won the bulk of the primaries won the nomination -- on the first ballot.
In 2004, if no candidate breaks away from the pack early and clearly, Balkanization could set in, because too many convention delegates might be selected too quickly. By mid-March, with two-thirds of the delegates already chosen, you could have an incipient stalemate, with Howard Dean holding 28% of them, Dick Gephardt 22%, John Kerry 16%, Wesley Clark 12%, John Edwards 8%, Joe Lieberman 7% and Al Sharpton 5%.
Historically, this would augur ill for the Democrats. Since World War I, they have lost all four elections in which they chose a dark-horse compromise candidate after embarrassingly long bickering (more than 40 ballots in 1920, more than 100 in 1924) or later picked a nominee who had not run in the early primaries (Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and Hubert Humphrey in 1968). At first blush, doing so again in 2004 would look dumb.
However, should Dean or someone else lead with a delegate count below or around 30% through March, that probably wouldn't be enough to command the nomination. To win, the early leader would have to politick heavily enough and persuasively enough in the spring to gather 38% to 40% of the delegates by May or June.
Hence, the wisdom of Dean and Kerry to forgo the public financing system for the primary period. Either would need more money than the system would allow to stay in high gear during April and May. Reaching 40% of the delegate count without that extra money might be impossible.
The new context is that it could be good for Democrats to have the intraparty race remain active and full of Bush-blistering right up through the July convention. That would allow them to stay on message against the White House and the GOP. Should the Democratic primaries yield a winner by March, however, public interest could subside, leaving the probable nominee underfunded and lacking the wherewithal to be heard for four months while the White House and the Republicans, spending hundreds of millions of privately raised dollars, controlled the debate.
An encouraging Democratic scenario could include Dean wrapping up the nomination in May or June, gaining battle experience and the momentum of a winner without the GOP having been able to negatively define him with megabuck advertising. Instead, a Democratic drumbeat and Bush indictment could flourish.
A second intriguing convention scenario could be a Democratic race in which Dean can't climb above 32% or 33% of the delegates but slowly raises his political appeal to come close in head-to-head trial heats with Bush. Under these circumstances, it is possible to imagine a Democratic convention turning to an increasingly feisty Al Gore to avenge the "stolen" election of 2000, with Dean as the candidate for vice president. Having Dean in the running-mate slot would probably head off any Nader-type third party.
Let me stipulate: Gore's ineffectiveness during the Florida recount and its aftermath added to the public's negative impression of him, influencing the former vice president to stay out of the 2004 race. However, should voters sour further on Bush, they could warm to a hard-hitting Gore seeking revenge for the way his 530,000-vote popular margin was sloughed off by a 5-4 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. When another Tennessean, Andrew Jackson, was counted out by the House of Representatives after winning the popular vote over John Quincy Adams in 1824, he came back four years later and shellacked Adams.
Interesting as these scenarios may be, they are patently speculative. Gore has never shown much resemblance to Jackson, while a bitter, drawn-out Democratic race could simply yield another November fumble. After all, over more than three decades, losing, not winning, has become the Democratic norm.
The Republican primary race, by contrast, will not be a race but a coronation. There will be no excitement, no drama. Yet, drama aplenty will start to swell in late August as GOP delegates arrive in Manhattan -- accompanied, perhaps, by thousands from the FBI and military intelligence, as well as conceivably more Army Rangers and National Guard soldiers taking up stations to protect the president.
In 2002, the idea of again draping the mantle of 9/11 around Bush at a 2004 nomination convention just a few miles from "ground zero" must have seemed highly opportune to GOP strategists. But many months and embarrassments later, the United States is heading toward 2004 with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein apparently alive and uncaptured, perhaps watching eagerly as the U.S. positions in Iraq and Afghanistan deteriorate and terrorism rebounds on a wave of Islamic hostility toward Bush and the U.S. presence on Iraqi soil. Almost unbelievably, the White House has dissipated the wave of global sympathy for the United States after 9/11 and replaced it with a sullen hostility that reaches beyond Islam into much of Europe, East Asia and Latin America.
But there are other reasons why this could make New York City an anxious place next September. The city has a Muslim population estimated at more than half a million and, according to the Arab American Institute, some 200,000 Arabs, the vast majority of them citizens. Another 150,000 Arabs live in adjacent northeastern New Jersey.
Brooklyn, less than a mile from Manhattan, has the biggest concentrations of Muslims in the city. Many of its Islamic neighborhoods became familiar to FBI agents after 9/11. Given the general animosity worldwide toward Bush's policies, it seems quite possible that the authorities, looking to head off acts of terrorism, could antagonize a huge swath of Islamic New York.
One can easily imagine that the FBI and the military will feel they must take extraordinary precautions for the GOP convention. New York City has 130 mosques and dozens of Arab neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. The Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center in Queens houses North America's largest Shiite Muslim congregation. In the face of the inevitable crackdown, it's quite conceivable the GOP convention could serve as a magnet for terrorists itching to prove the U.S. president's ineffectiveness.
Keep in mind that when Bush was in London recently, Al Qaeda or affiliated terrorists made it a point to bomb the British Consulate and a British bank in Istanbul, Turkey. Even if no attempts are made on Manhattan, the probability of extreme security measures and possibly something approaching martial law in sections of the island could cast a long shadow over the convention. This potential embarrassment is another one of the extraordinary political uncertainties of 2004.