It's inevitable that 2004 will be a particularly interesting year in politics -- on both sides of the political aisle, but mostly on the Democratic side.
As of now, it appears that the three most interesting players will be President Bush, obviously, Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton. Once Dean sews up the nomination, will he immediately veer to the center? How much further left will President Bush go on domestic policy? What will Hillary do, and what will she say, as she calculatingly positions herself for the 2008 run?
Think about it: 9-11 caused a paradigm shift in presidential politics. For the foreseeable future the driving issue will likely not be the economy, but national security and foreign policy. This works to the substantial disadvantage of the Democrats.
As congenital doves who are soft on national defense, they don't inspire confidence in these areas. But Republicans, and specifically George Bush, do. The public feels more secure under their leadership.
Compounding the Democrats' problem is that presidents are more relevant during wartime -- and the public knows it. Their policies and actions as commander in chief have a major and potentially immediate impact on military and foreign affairs. On the other hand, while a president's domestic policies can greatly affect the economy -- such as with Bush's tax cuts -- they are much less frequent, and their results are generally less immediate. (How often during a presidential term do you have a major tax bill?)
And by the way, these aren't just problems the Democratic Party has with the antiwar Howard Dean, though they are worse if he's their nominee. It's been almost comical to watch the other eight candidates criticizing Dean for his antiwar stances when they barely have more credibility on national defense.
Just think of them as Dean light. None of them holds a candle to Bush here. None of them is enthusiastic about prosecuting this war; they reserve their excitement for such specious concerns as whether Bush is involving enough nations in his decisions and whether he exaggerated reports of WMD. It's as if the other Democratic presidential contenders are saying, "Don't vote for Dean because he is utterly irresponsible on national security issues. Vote for us; we are just marginally irresponsible." (Do you think one single international terrorist is rooting for Bush in 2004?)
But it will be interesting to see how much more strident Dean's desperate opponents will become in trying to derail him. And things will get even more fascinating once the conventions are over and the general election campaigning begins.
It will then be time for Howard Dean to say, "Now what?" "What do I do with all my Bush-haters? How do I continue to string them along as I endeavor to slither back into the land of rationality to position myself for at least, say, 40 percent of the popular vote?"
Not to worry. Deaniacs have nowhere else to go. So Dean can proceed to prove he's the centrist that his loopy supporters have been claiming he is all along. But how is he going to prove that? And how much is it going to help him if he does, especially considering that President Bush -- regrettably, in my view -- has veered center/left himself on so many domestic issues: education, prescription drugs, campaign finance reform, etc.?
Dean will probably ignore the substance of the domestic issues, too, and focus on the negative, trying to work on the hate angle here as well, through class warfare and portraying Bush as a blue blood, cozy with big corporate corruption. (Can you imagine how bonkers these Bush haters would be if a true, domestic-policy conservative were in office right now?) Nevertheless, such phony populism will satisfy Dean's carnivorous Bush-haters and may have some chance of capturing swing voters.
While I never take elections for granted and realize any number of things can happen between now and November, I truly think this will remain George Bush's election to lose.
And as this year unfolds we should keep a sharp eye on Hillary Clinton, who is focused on her 2008 presidential bid. She's savvy enough to know that war issues are going to dominate through 2004 and probably 2008. Consequently, she has already been positioning herself as more hawkish and less military-loathing.
But the shrewd Hillary will also have the advantage of observing and learning from Dean's (or whichever Democratic nominee's) campaign experiments to see what plays well.
Yes, this will be an intensely interesting year.