Looking for Mr. Good Candidate

Although the conventional political wisdom projects 2004 to be the year of the angry Democrat -- angry about the stolen Florida vote, angry about Republican dirty tricks and steamroller tactics, angry about his or her party's lack of intestinal fortitude -- it is equally accurate to call it the year of the pragmatic Democrat. Under George W. Bush, the past three years in the wilderness have seemed like three decades, and Democratic loyalists want desperately to win next time out. That may be why no clear front-runner has emerged for the party's presidential nomination. Democrats are carefully, painstakingly evaluating their deck of candidate playing cards in search of a winning entry.

With that in mind, let's examine the field of major aspirants -- those having at least an outside shot at the nomination -- with an eye toward strengths and weaknesses. Starting from the center-right, there is Sen. Joe Lieberman. Lieberman carries the virtues of name recognition and perceived moral probity, as well as a puckish sense of humor and a presumed appeal to Jewish Americans -- but not much else. His politics, particularly on economic questions, is much too far to the right for a Democratic presidential candidate. In a time of corporate scandals, the Connecticut senator, who has a reputation for being the insurance industry's man in Washington, is too closely tied to big business. And his post-2000 criticism of running mate Al Gore's populistic campaign puts Lieberman out of phase with the current party Zeitgeist. Throw in his uncritical support of Likudist Israel and his hawkish stance on Iraq, and you potentially have the most conservative Democratic nominee since the 1920s.

At the other end of the ideological spectrum is Dennis Kucinich, often mentioned in the same breath with A[ Sharpton, Carol Moseley Braun, and Bob Graham as a minor candidate with no chance of winning. But Kucinich is a cut above the other "second-tier' contenders, someone with a realistic chance to break through, as his runner-up finish in the MoveOn.org preference poll proved.

The Ohio congressman is the only out-and-out, unapologetic progressive populist in the 2004 sweepstakes with well-developed positions on a wide range of issues; he's the only prominent promoter of a national single-payer health-insurance system who is also antiwar and an opponent of corporate globalization and its institutional structures. His drawbacks? He has an unfortunate propensity for off-the-wall proposals (the Department of Peace) and emotional (and therefore "unpresidential") rhetoric. Short and lacking a classic profile, he also makes an unprepossessing appearance. And when it comes to the national media, Kucinich is the Rodney Dangerfield of the nominating process; he gets no respect.

Howard Dean is Kucinich's main competition for the antiwar vote. He is composed, articulate, charming, tough and (best of all) unafraid of the media-generated Bush popularity and willing to take the fight to the Republicans. He is also, to some extent, intellectually dishonest, billing himself as the representative of "the democratic wing of the Democratic party" -- and, by inference, the legatee of Paul Wellstone. His unique gifts notwithstanding, Dean is well to the right of the late Sen. Wellstone; he favors a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget, rejects federal gun controls, opposes single-payer health insurance, and has referred to himself as "a social liberal and a fiscal conservative." He would draw well among independents -- his real role model is John Anderson -- but, if elected, would soon be warring with fellow Democrats over domestic policy.

Richard Gephardt has the prowar populist vote to himself, and that, ironically, is his weakness. Had the former minority leader of the House not voted to support the war in Iraq, he would be the odds-on favorite for his party's presidential nomination -- and deservedly so for his years spent toiling in the political vineyards on behalf of working people. As things stand, he is asking the antiwar Democratic grassroots to back a firm supporter of the Bush foreign policy, and that's a hard sell. Domestically, it's another matter. Gephardt's devotion to labor and his steadfast resistance to conservative economic policy is well documented. He has original ideas on health care and trade, can bridge ideological differences effectively, and lends mainstream respectability to the progressive agenda. But he's an old face and a pillar of the political establishment who would have to win over younger voters. And, then, there's that damn war vote.

This leaves the Kennedyesque candidates with hair, Sens. John Edwards and John Kerry. Edwards, like Gephardt, carries the baggage of being a strong supporter of the Iraq war. In addition, his decidedly moderate voting record, which clashes with his populistic stump rhetoric, reveals a Clinton-like DLC Democrat. The Edwards strong suit is a winning personality, a feel-your-pain sincerity, good looks, and a history of having taken on big economic interests as a trial lawyer. His largest negative (aside from inexperience) is that, if nominated and elected, he would be the third relatively conservative southerner to lead the liberal, northern-based Democratic party in the past quarter-century; it would be another exceedingly uncomfortable fit.

On to the enigmatic Sen. Kerry, political man of mystery. Tall, handsome in his own way, measured, thoughtful, eloquent on occasion, Kerry gives off conflicting vibes: decorated war hero who dislikes war, yet fudged on Iraq; strong union supporter who nevertheless has periodically deserted labor on free-trade legislation; suave liberal urbanite who counts environmentalism among his foremost issues. The most compelling attribute Kerry offers is gravitas, the presence and weight, especially on national security, to appear presidential -- and to diminish George W. Bush in the process. What he lacks is obvious passion and ideological commitment. He could be another JFK -- or not.

So, there we have it, Democrats: six candidates with positive and negative traits. If we could take parts of all six, we could build a Franklin Roosevelt -- an unbeatable nominee with the humor and moral certitude of Lieberman, the dynamic energy and progressive ideals of Kucinich, the spontaneity and fearlessness of Dean, the experience and working-class roots of Gephardt, the boyish enthusiasm and lawyerly skills of Edwards, and the heroic stature and serene confidence of Kerry. It may yet all come together in one of them. In the meantime, does anyone know what Al Gore is doing these days?

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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