Dean, Clinton and Kerry: No, No, No for 2008

Thanksgiving is traditionally an occasion for Op-Ed columnists to put aside their customary bile and offer up heartfelt thanks for the many blessings that we Americans share. But I say: Heartfelt thanks are what grandmothers are for. I’m going with bile. This week’s topic is Candidates Who Obviously Covet the 2008 Democratic Nomination and Who Must Be Stopped at All Costs From Obtaining It.

Let’s begin with Howard Dean. Most of us thought that Dean’s spectacular defeat in the Iowa caucuses last January meant the end of him and his movement. Instead, it was more like the ending to “Terminator 2,” where the evil robot is blasted to smithereens and presumed dead, then the fragments slowly regroup and come to life. As we speak, Deaniacs are reconstituting in their yoga studios and organic juice bars, plotting -- in their benevolent, cheerful but fundamentally misguided way -- to make Dean the leader of the Democratic Party.

Why would this be such a disaster? Because, remember, the Dean campaign advanced two novel theories about national politics. The first was that Democrats paid too much attention to winning over the center. What they really needed to do was mobilize the base by nominating a candidate like Dean who’d fire up liberals. This turned out to be doubly wrong. Democrats were fired up enough that they didn’t need a Howard Dean to inspire them to unprecedented enthusiasm. And a fired-up Democratic base, volunteering and donating at unprecedented levels, was not enough to win.

Second, Dean argued that Democrats didn’t really need to engage the cultural issues that Republicans had long used to win white, working-class voters. Instead, Dean argued, it would be better to persuade culturally traditional whites to vote their economic self-interest. But of course, a candidate can’t always decide for the voters what issues they should pay attention to. Economics is complicated. Cultural issues are visceral. The presidential election showed pretty decisively that Democrats can’t get a hearing on their more popular economic platform if voters don’t think their values are in the right place. A secular Yankee like Dean is about the worst possible candidate.


Unless, of course, the alternative is Hillary Clinton. OK, maybe she wouldn’t be worse than Dean. But she surely would go down in flames if she won the nomination in 2008. President Bush owed his victory in large part to cultural division. If there’s anybody who incites cultural divisions, it’s Hillary Clinton.

Her advisors point out that she’s religious and speaks the language of Scripture. That’s nice, but nobody seemed to notice it during her eight years in the national spotlight. She’s painfully uncharismatic. Her only political accomplishment is that she won a Senate seat in an extremely Democratic state, where she ran six percentage points behind Al Gore. Clinton’s supporters like to note that she’s not as liberal as people think. That’s exactly the problem. I can see the logic behind nominating a liberal whom voters see as moderate. Nominating a moderate whom voters see as liberal is kind of backward, isn’t it?

Probably the only worse option than Dean or Clinton, short of nominating Paris Hilton, would be to renominate John Kerry, who, reports have suggested, inexplicably harbors ambitions of running again in 2008. In a previous column I compared Kerry’s contribution to his own campaign to an anchor’s contribution to a boat race. In retrospect, I seem to have given him far too much credit.

It came out last week that Kerry ended his campaign with about $16 million left in the bank. It’s unclear whether this was some kind of misconceived strategy to save money for a possible future run or, more likely, whether it was simply ineptitude on a mind-boggling scale. There’s a lot a campaign could have done with $16 million. Maybe, you know, spend some of it in Ohio.

In his defense, a Kerry spokesman told the Boston Globe, “John Kerry raised more money than any Democratic nominee in history, and he gave more money to Democratic candidates across the country than any other nominee in history.” Somehow this failed to mollify outraged Democrats. (Think of all the company funds former Tyco head L. Dennis Kozlowski didn’t spend on himself.) So Kerry then agreed to “donate a substantial portion” of the unspent funds to Democrats. A substantial portion? After failing to spend it on what he called “the most important election of our lifetimes”? How about all of it, plus selling off some vacation homes and donating the proceeds, and then disappearing from public view forever? That would be something to be thankful for.