The memory of the 2000 election is still vivid for me. I was a strong supporter of Al Gore. I remember the anger that I felt towards the Supreme Court when they halted the recount, but I also remember the anger that I felt towards Ralph Nader who gained 97,000 votes in Florida when the final margin was on the order of 500 votes. If not for Nader, Gore would now be president.
Why was Nader able to gain 97,000 votes in Florida? Because some people did not take seriously the prospect that Nader might give the election to Bush. I feel that I see the same tendencies today, not so much in Nader's flirtation with taking another run in 2004, but in the candidacy of Howard Dean. It is truly ironic that in order to defeat George W. Bush in the 2004 election, we must first have a battle with ourselves.
Howard Dean is not an electable candidate. The anger which resonates so strongly with the Democratic base will turn off the electorate as a whole, but in the same way that Nader supporters did not take seriously the warnings that many of us gave in 2000 about the possible consequences of a Nader run on the outcome of the 2000 election, Dean supporters are now not taking seriously the possible consequences of a Dean run for the 2004 election. There are many similarities. In 2000, at Nader rallies, speakers used to argue that people shouldn't worry about voting for Nader because Bush couldn't possibly win. Now, on dailykos, Kos, a Dean supporter, regularly argues that any of the leading candidates can beat Bush. The message: don't worry about electability. If Dean becomes the candidate, I am sure that Kos will come to regret this stance. Bush will be a very strong opponent in 2004. The economy is now beginning to turn up, with very strong growth in the last quarter. Also, Bush will have a formidable advantage when it comes to fundraising.
Many Dean supporters are not open to the suggestion that Dean is unelectable. Dean supporters often request empirical evidence for this claim. However, these requests are disingenuous. I have a great deal of respect for science and empirical evidence but the Dean people are making this demand, not because they could be swayed by evidence, but because they don't want to think about electability. What sort of evidence do they want? Should we look at past elections? If we compare Dean to McGovern, then Dean people will reflexively say that the comparison is no good. What evidence do Dean supporters have that Dean is electable? Many candidates have done well in the primaries only to go on and lose big in the general election. (Think of Mondale.) Also, what is the empirical evidence that Kucinich is unelectable?
We're not scientists, and the question of electability is too complex to be studied in a truly scientific manner, but we all have an obligation to think and think hard about which candidate would be best suited to take on George Bush. I think that Dean's anger would be a large liability in the general election. Dean opposes all of Bush's tax cuts, and Bush is going to accuse Dean raising everyone's taxes. Dean will agree that this is true but then argue that people will be better off with his plans anyway. This kind of argument won't work. The smart thing for Democrats to do would be to repeal only the tax cuts for the rich. Then they can argue that they are only raising taxes on the top 1%.
Moreover, foreign policy will be a huge issue in this election, and we will not be able to win if we are simply viewed as an antiwar party. I opposed the war, but we have to run with a message that we will solve the problem in Iraq, not with the message that we were against the war all along. Dean opportunistically took the antiwar stance early, but he has no experience in foreign policy, and in the upcoming election, voters will not select a candidate that they do not think will make them safe.
The only candidate who can beat George Bush in the upcoming election is Wesley Clark. He is also the best candidate. Clark does have precisely the experience necessary to deal with the international problems that we now face, and voters will trust him to do this. Clark also has a very strong vision of the United States's role in the world, and our need to develop strong relations with our allies in Europe. This is not a view that Clark picked up overnight for political expediency, but a deeply held view developed over many years. I think that Clark is the candidate who is best positioned to run strong in every part of the country. He can't be painted as an angry Northeastern liberal out of touch with the rest of the country, and this is precisely what will make liberal ideas much more appealing to the mainstream coming from Clark as opposed to Dean. There are many moderate Republicans who are not satisfied with Bush, but who would never vote for a Democrat. Clark has spent his career as a nonpartisan, and in many people's minds he will be very strongly associated with the military. I believe that he is the one Democrat that disgruntled Republicans would be willing to vote for. If Clark picks a southern running mate, he could put the South in play, and this is certainly not a possibility for Dean. If Clark is the candidate, reporters will ask about Bush's lack of service in Vietnam. This could be very damaging, and the contrast with Clark will be very clear. If Dean runs, we will have two candidates who went out of their way to avoid service. Finally, Clark is simply much more presidential than Dean.