Voters know that nothing significant ever happens in politics before the real primary season begins. Thus, they don't pay attention to early political news unless it is salacious (Gary Hart Pulls Up His Pants) or wildly unlikely (George Bush Blasts Jesus).
Yet every four years, the preprimary plots and intrigues of the candidates are chronicled by the media in stupefying detail. Gephardt is said to have faded in Iowa. You probably missed the earlier news that he had surged. Paul Simon, the experts decided, was hot in November but had cooled by Christmas. Pat Robertson threatened to eclipse George Bush in Michigan, or was it Jack Kemp in Iowa? Bruce Babbitt stood up at one of the debates. Then he sat down.
But now, on the eve of the February 8th Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary eight days later, the trivia game is over. We are about to get serious. Very quickly in the next month or two, the real news of election returns will bring a lot of sketchy details into sharp focus, and one or more of the men running will suddenly seem like a plausible president. Candidates lightly regarded in December can take on a brilliant glow by early spring. By the end of Super Tuesday, March 8th, with its sixteen primaries and five caucuses, one or two of the Democratic candidates–now ridiculed as "dwarfs"–may well seem 10 feet tall. Their victories will appear–to the pundits–to have been inevitable.
As the horse race begins, my own winter-book notes on the field show that any one of three or four Democratic candidates has the potential to grow dramatically in stature and become a believable nominee. None of them, however, has the capacity to dazzle and befog the public with the acting skills of a Ronald Reagan. I don't count that as a bad thing, but it's clearly a problem for both Democrats and Republicans. Their rhetoric and style will no doubt be unfavorably compared in people's minds with those of the master of video manipulation.
My hunches about what's going to happen are based on one large assumption that is not widely shared–that 1988 is going to elect a Democratic president, almost regardless of who the two nominees are. The conventional wisdom of many political insiders and reporters holds the opposite. They look across the Democratic field, composed of either unknown figures who seem bland and unpersuasive (Dukakis, Simon, Gephardt) or charismatic types with heavy negatives (Hart, Jackson). Then they look at the Republicans and see experienced and well-known respectables. But in presidential politics, a couple of key primary victories can turn a bland unknown or a controversial character into a powerful and established candidate mighty fast.
The reasons I think the Democrats are headed back to power go deeper. For one thing, the Republicans are acting like Democrats this time, clawing nastily at one another's throats. That is symptomatic of a group that has been in power too long and doesn't know where to go next. The Democrats, in contrast, are hungry, more or less minding their manners and keeping the attack focused on the Republican opposition.
Moreover, the cycles of recent political history argue that having opted for one extreme for the last eight years, the voters will now be ready to swing back in the other direction. The elections of 1986, when Democrats swept back into control of the Senate, were a harbinger of the shifting preferences. Finally, and most important, the American economy is weak and getting weaker. Political reporters like to believe that elections turn dramatically on the events they cover–campaign speeches and gaffes and bits of strategy–but the single most important factor in presidential elections is the economic well-being of the voters. If incomes are rising smartly, the incumbents win. If not, the people throw the rascals out and put in a new bunch of rascals.
The state of the economy may not be an exciting campaign topic, but it has more to do with the outlook for 1988 than does any of the endless stream of campaign-trail chatter. Despite White House propaganda, the present economic condition strongly predicts a Democratic victory in this presidential election. Per capita disposable income, the best single indicator of voter prosperity, rises, on average, 3.4 percent a year, discounted for inflation.
For the last year and a half, it has been flat or gradually declining. Gross weekly earnings of production workers have been falling in real terms during the same period. If that trend continues through this election season, the Republicans lose.
Michael Dukakis looks like the strongest horse at the moment. He has all the right assets–money, purpose, an engaging wife and an impressive intellectual grasp of the issues. What bothers me about Dukakis is the same quality that shows up in so many of these candidates–a mechanical sense of politics that reduces the great policy questions to the calculations of an algebra problem. Dukakis has gone far with that approach, and he isn't likely to change now. I'm bothered that he seems to relate better to technocratic policy makers than to the raw and richly human characters who are his fellow politicians.
His policies, especially on the economy, seem excessively cautious, but that happens to front-runners; you can't hold that against him. Former associates say they admire his brains and the way he applies his intelligence to tough problems, but they don't come away with any special affection for the person. The danger is that he will listen too closely to the mechanics of government and turn a deaf ear to the larger poetry required of the presidency.
Paul Simon is more than he might seem at this moment. The Illinois senator's mild and pleasant Midwestern exterior is real enough, but I think there is a much shrewder, tougher politician lurking beneath. Simon looks like the best possibility for getting the Democratic party back on track–forcefully representing both the broad working classes and the poor against the greedy excesses of the privileged.
His values are not in doubt, but the question I hear on Capitol Hill from those who have worked with him is whether he is tough enough to deal with the mess that the next president will inherit. Would he be too nice for the job?
I don't know, but I wouldn't underrate Simon's strength. For one thing, this is a man who wrote 11 books, banging them out at night on an old manual typewriter. Most are forgettable tomes, but the output itself indicates real fortitude–and a strong ego. Nobody, especially a politician, writes 11 books without believing in his own mind and voice.
Simon also occasionally takes contrary positions–notably his endorsement of a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget–that suggest he does his own thinking. The logic of his balanced-budget position offends his natural allies, the liberal interest groups, but in 1988 it is smart politics, especially for a Northern Democrat. My feeling is that Simon has the right mix of contradictions–a spirit of generosity combined with old-fashioned sobriety–to appeal to voters in much the same way Ronald Reagan did.
Albert Gore, the senator from Tennessee, seems to me the one candidate who can hardly lose in 1988. He is thirty-nine years old, young enough to be back again later, and he has a wonderful combination of qualities for the Democratic party–liberal and Southern and real smart. As a candidate, he is still a bit wooden and needs work. But if he doesn't win the nomination, his handsome face and Southern drawl would balance the ticket nicely in the vice-presidential slot. Insiders have been thinking of Gore as a future president for many years, and no one has thought more earnestly about it than Gore himself.
Gore is not the country boy his speeches would suggest. He grew up here in Washington (his father, Albert Gore Sr., was a Tennessee senator) and went to Harvard. He strikes me as the kind of kid who turned his term papers in on time–and thanked the professor afterward for any critical comments. Gore's mind is drawn to the puzzle-solving aspects of government policy, whether it's the technology of arms control or health regulations. He thinks hard about things–a big plus compared with the incumbent. And Gore's outlook is genuinely forward-looking (notwithstanding wife Tipper's anguishing over dirty words in rock lyrics–a position she has recently softened somewhat).
The down side to Gore is his bloodless manner–an air of ambitious calculation he has not yet learned to conceal. Occasionally, candidate Gore lapses into the hot populist rhetoric that was natural to his father, an old Southern liberal who spoke for ordinary folk. It does not come naturally to the son and sounds awfully contrived. Indeed, what bothers me most about Gore is his obvious thirst to be accepted by the political establishment that treated his father as an outsider.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson is my sentimental favorite, and not only because he has overcome incredible odds to reach his present position in the field. At the moment, Jackson is keeping the Democratic party honest–enunciating the traditional party ideas and values from which so many other Democrats have run away. He has the potential to shock the party into finally recognizing that his themes–economic justice and a humane foreign policy–are the key to reviving both America's energy and the party's old vigor.
Unfortunately, the more Jackson demonstrates this in the upcoming primaries, the more anxious party leaders will become. I predict that by April they are going to be very anxious about Jesse Jackson.
Gary Hart is everyone's favorite subject of conversation–until the talk turns serious. He has a Nixonian shiftiness in his eyes, but Hart lacks the true venom of Nixon's twisted soul. Hart got the full benefit of a media blitz during the primaries of 1984, but he blew his magic moment. This time, I expect an early fade, once voters face the real question about his presidential character in the privacy of the booth. Hart can depart with a semblance of honor, claiming vindication from the votes he will get. Or he can make things even more sordid and painful for the party by sulkily clinging to a doomed venture. I expect him to do the right thing when the time comes, partly in the mistaken notion that he can still become somebody's secretary of state. Forget it, Gary; it's over.
Richard Gephardt is the nice guy who holds the ring at the altar and gives a perfectly appropriate toast at the wedding banquet, but everyone is too drunk to remember what he said. That's doubtless unfair, but there is something too well finished and homogenized in his manner. He needs an enigmatic scar or perhaps a twang in his voice. He's the John Glenn of 1988.
Bruce Babbitt has become the favorite underdog of everybody from George Will to The New Republic. He isn't going to win, but he has proved himself a brainy politician who thinks about the world beyond himself.
The Republicans are easier to define, since there are only two of them with any real chance: George Bush, perennial bridesmaid of the Republican party with plenty of IOUs in his pocket, and Kansas senator Robert Dole, the savvy floor leader with a brittle sense of humor and a dangerous temper.
Bush is still not quite believable as president. He was born to be number two, and nothing he does or says seems to change that impression. What exactly does Bush believe about anything? The image was conveyed perfectly last month when Gorbachev was in Washington and jumped out of the limousine he was sharing with Bush to shake hands with spectators. Bush wandered around uncertainly before coming over to see what the excitement was about. He stood there awkwardly, not sure what to do next, while Gorby pressed the flesh.
Yet Bush has all the weapons of entrenched power going for him, and according to the conventional wisdom, he continues to look like the likely nominee.
But my hunch is that it's Bob Dole's race to win–and he just may do it. Many in the GOP acknowledge that Bush would make a safe, orthodox Republican nominee, but his lackluster personality makes him a probable loser in a general election. The reason Dole looks better is not his politics–he is an ardent conservative whose positions on everything from Star Wars to taxing the rich are not much different from Bush's. What he has is a glint in his eye, a cynical sense of politics. He looks like he could be a strong president.
The downside for Dole is that same hard-metal character. I recently asked one of the Democratic candidates which Republican he would rather run against, expecting him to say Bush, Instead, Dole was his choice. From the Senate, he knows the explosive side of Bob Dole–the quick temper that can suddenly flash a withering wisecrack. One or two such blowups in mid-campaign will ruin Dole, which is why he struggles so visibly to control his tongue.
Jack Kemp is the candidate who should have been but wasn't. I'm convinced it is something in his body language or voice or face, because in every other way, Kemp should have been the rallying point for the conservative movement within the Republican party. Kemp's most appealing quality may be the reason he couldn't unite the right wing–he is not a hater.
The Reverend Pat Robertson is the right candidate for a doomed cause, and the conservative cause is surely doomed now. I suspect that many leaders of the New Right opted for the TV preacher because they sensed their day in the center of things was over–the tide peaked a year or two ago and is fast ebbing. Robertson's candidacy gives them a convenient bridge back to the outsider role in which they've always felt most comfortable–the principled opposition demanding moral rectitude and denouncing the corruption of regular politics.
The field horses, of course, are former Delaware governor Pete du Pont and General Alexander Haig. For the Republicans' sake, the sooner du Pont gets off the stage the better. His half-baked scheme for turning social security over to the insurance companies is not what the GOP needs to reassure voters. Haig, on the other hand, has lent a certain feistiness to the contest, and his nasty one-liners, particularly those aimed at Bush, will be missed when he leaves the campaign, which I expect he'll be forced to do fairly soon.
Until now, the favorite game of the political junkies has been waiting for Mario. Cuomo, the governor of New York, seems enticing as the reluctant noncandidate, but the excitement could fade quickly as soon as someone else takes on the glow of campaign triumph. Conceivably, Cuomo could wind up as the nominee–but only if a most improbable set of events occurs. First, all the leading Democrats would have to fail the "star quality" test or else become discredited by scandal. Next, the contest would have to be so deadlocked that no candidate could control the outcome.
Then Cuomo could graciously consent to save the party and enter with a dramatic flourish–the candidate who wins the nomination by refusing to play the tedious circuit of full primary campaigning. One way or the other, the Democrats are going to smell the possibility of victory the closer they come to November.