That Seven-D’s Show

In 1988 Roger Ailes, then an advisor to Vice President George Bush in his presidential campaign, watched a television debate among the Democratic candidates and said of eventual nominee Michael Dukakis: “He looks like a guy thinking about what he’s going to have for dinner.” He didn’t mean Mr. Dukakis looked hungry, but preoccupied. His mind was someplace else. Maybe it was. He has a good mind and it probably goes to some interesting places.

I have been thinking about what Roger said because I’ve been thinking about the Democrats’ announced contenders for the 2004 presidential race. Leaving such crucial questions as political philosophy aside, candidates always bring a certain personal vibe to the proceedings when they walk into the room. Richard Nixon, whatever his politics were or were not, seemed shifty, LBJ oily.

And so, a look at the 2004 Dems and the vibes they bring:

Howard Dean, physician and former governor of Vermont, seems as bantamy and pugnacious as John McCain, and is proud of his outsider status. Dr. Dean gives off an interesting attitude. It’s as if he thinks his inside-the-Beltway competitors are a bunch of hicks. They’re not sophisticated and knowledgeable like someone who works in America. He brings two questions with him: Will America think a liberal-left Vermonter is an American? Or will they think him a kind of interesting shrub that grows in the East? Also: Will primary voters see him as Martin Sheen playing president Bartlet, or will they only think Dean thinks Dean is Sheen?

Joe Lieberman gives off a kind of canny happiness. He’s a happy guy, and shrewd too. He thinks he’d be a good president because he’s a good guy. It’s not about putting forward a philosophy or advancing an agenda, it’s about Joe is a good man and your president should be a good man. As well he should. You can’t go for the presidency unless you have a solid, steely ego, but you wonder if President Lieberman’s ego would spill over and create a private pool in which he swims laps in his own private world. Would the historical meaning of a Lieberman presidency be: Am I fabulous or what?

John Kerry brings the weight of experience and knowledge. Almost every member of his freshman Senate class has run for president, a fact he mentions. He wears his experience as if it were not a suit or a shield but a kind of gravity that hovers around his head, forcing his face and shoulders down. He brings his gravity with him; it changes the atmosphere around him. You imagine that in the balloon drop the balloons would come down fast and hard and obscure him at the podium.

John Edwards doesn’t bring gravity. He seems light, smooth and amiable. He has no crags. He seems untouched by life, as a bright boomer lawyer would. But he hasn’t been untouched; he’s known tragedy, the death in a car accident of his teenage son. And yet he has the smooth, unruffled exterior and the bright eyes. In the upcoming primary season, when he sits on the set with Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw, we’ll watch and wonder: Which one’s the anchorman? And we’ll think: Oh, it’s Tom, or Peter, it’s the older guy with the gravitas.

Dick Gephardt gives off a vibe of tired niceness. He is nice; it’s part of who he is and part what he does. But he’s tired of Congress. He long wanted to be speaker, and he realized that likely wouldn’t happen for years, and minority leadership is full of less-interesting headaches. He figured he had two choices. He could run for president again and see how it goes—he could win, he’s got the unions, Bush could tank—or he could join boards and write a book and do consulting and finally get some money. The first path doesn’t preclude the second, but the second would seem to preclude the first. So first path first. This will be his last throwing of the political dice. He could surprise everyone by being . . . surprising. I think he will not dye his eyebrows, and I think he’s already got writers trolling for self-deprecating jokes: When Bush said that of course I raised my eyebrows, but unfortunately he couldn’t tell.

Former senator Gary Hart is talking about getting in, and so is Al Sharpton. Mr. Hart is interesting, intellectual and independent. He carries on his back a question: Has he mellowed much? Has he gotten more strange or less? When you hear him speak, you wonder less about his brain and the extent to which it is engaged with a discernible philosophy, than about what seems his spiky personal oddness. He spoke of his time in the political cold the other day by comparing himself to Churchill. You wonder if there isn’t an inner grandiose vision of himself that leaves him hungry to re-enter the fray and implacably bitter that he’s been left out so long. He says he’ll decide in the spring. But he’s going to Iowa late this month and will begin to decide there. Whatever he does his party should let him back in the fold: He is a resource, he knows a lot.

As for Mr. Sharpton, he’s running not for president but for Party Powerbroker Who Must Not Be Ignored. He wants to be the candidate of black America, but Donna Brazile’s clever plan to run local black officeholders in primaries in which Sharpton runs could turn his candidacy into a joke. He might be tough, though, for his competitors to get a handle on in debates.

*   *   *

Some pundits have been wondering if the Democrats should be called “The Seven Dwarfs” or “The Six Pack” or whatever. That seems silly. They’re a gaggle of guys who have each decided to move for the presidency for the usual mix of reasons. They’re not dwarfs and they’re not indistinguishable bottles of beer.

What is more interesting is why the Democratic field is already so big, seven likely to go for the presidency this early on. There are practical reasons: If you’re going to run you have to get your money lines up and operating; you can’t let the rich contributors of the party get picked off while you try to decide what you want. And as Dick Morris notes, the first two primaries aren’t in 2004 but in ’03, so early ’03 announcements are reasonable.

As for the fairly high number of Democratic contenders, I have a hunch.

In one sense they are vying to run against a president who’s popular and well regarded, who bonded with a good portion of the American people more deeply and more quickly than most presidents are able to, who’s buoyed at the moment by history’s high seas, and proceeding on his domestic agenda with boldness. You would think not a lot of politicians would be so eager to get in the game. But they are.

The reason: The Democrats as an institutional party were late to learn the lesson of 1992, but having finally learned it they’re remembering it perhaps too well and applying it perhaps too broadly.

The lesson of 1992 was: History can turn on a dime. There’s no sure thing. A guy with 90% popularity can lose 50 points in a year.

Why were they late, back then, to learn this? Because in 1992 the Democrats were mesmerized. They were snake-bit. They never understood Ronald Reagan’s appeal, or the first President Bush’s, and they simply didn’t understand why Americans chose them in landslides. The Democrats did not expect Reagan to win in 1980 against an incumbent. He won in a landslide. He won a second landslide four years later. They knew they could at least pick off Mr. Bush in 1988 because he was a lousy campaigner and seemed weak. It was time for a change, and Mike Dukakis was a decent sober governor. And Mr. Bush won in ’88 in another landslide. By 1991 he was polling at 90%.

So 1992 comes and the Democrats have learned: This is a Republican era, we can’t win right now. So a handful of Democrats got in the 1992 fight, not heavyweights like Mario Cuomo but less-known figures like Bill Clinton. The morning he woke up as president-elect, he and his wife looked at each other and started to laugh. Who knew? They didn’t get into it thinking it would work, that’s news that only came to them at the end of the campaign.

A lot of Republicans on the ground were also shocked. They too had learned that the 1980s and now ’90s were a Republican era and that’s that. A dimwitted triumphalism had set in, stretching from the Republican National Committee in Washington on out to the neighborhood barbecue. But the most sophisticated in the party knew it was over well before voting day in ’92. They knew what was coming.

I think the Democrats as a party are still somewhat transfixed by the lesson of 1992. And they’re waiting for history to turn on a dime. They don’t think George W. Bush is a fool anymore, but they don’t think that highly of him. And they know history can turn on a dime, and they know that Bushes ride high and fall far, like cowboys who stand tall in the saddle on the tallest horse and then lose their balance and fall hard.

*   *   *

But George W. Bush also thinks a lot about ’92. He saw what happened to his father up close and personal. And he knows part of the message of 1992 is that history can turn on a dime.

But he thinks there are other lessons of ’92. He thinks history turns for a reason. He thinks not only bad luck but bad decisions and bad operations force history to turn. And he thinks none of that in any case is the Ur Lesson of 1992. To Bush the Ur Lesson of 1992 is: History does not necessarily repeat itself.

Two thousand four is not necessarily 1992; not all Bushes fall hard; new forces and facts yield new outcomes. History is more likely to repeat itself when you ask it to, when you unknowingly push it in certain directions, when you summon bad fortune. He doesn’t intend to.

He thinks the Democrats haven’t fully absorbed the Ur Lesson. He thinks however, that they’ll discover it. And he thinks what they learn may someday be called the lesson of ’04.