The Democrats: In quest of seriousness

Posted: Jan 21, 2004 12:00 AM

Brashness wears thin, as Ross Perot twice discovered in the '90s. And Perot had a certain goofy charm about him -- a larger claim than supporters of the Mad Doctor of Vermont would make for their man. Eventually, voters start to visualize a candidate actually swearing, on Inauguration Day, to "faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States ... "

Let us not yet write off Howard Dean and the Deaniacs, with their Internet cash-raising machine. Dean does something to and for a fair number of people. But, honestly, a man who, hard as he tries, can't beat John Edwards!

On from Iowa to New Hampshire now, and friendlier terrain for the Mad Doctor. There, he may reclaim his place as leader of the pack, until his brashness wears even thinner and voters start to look around for a serious candidate, precisely the thing Howard Dean isn't now and never was.

The notion of Dean as leader of the free world is like unto the notion of Michael Jackson as pope. Dean probably isn't a bad egg in his weird New England secularist post-'60s Ben and Jerry's way. He is merely implausible as a United States president, with his volatility, negativism and regular shifts of position. You would have to regard, so it seems to me, George W. Bush as unqualified to head a rural Rotary Club in order to imagine as his replacement a man who solemnly proposes calling off the tax cuts now helping stoke the economy.

Where does Iowa leave us? That's the odd part. It leaves the Democratic Party no nearer than before to choosing a serious candidate: a Harry Truman, let us say, or a Lyndon Johnson -- somebody, like him or not, who can steer a more or less straight course.

The most serious of the Democrats -- the likeliest to siphon off Republican votes should it come to that -- is Sen. Joe Lieberman. Joe, you feel, could do the job, but how many Democrats will want to offer it to him? The party as presently led stands considerably to Lieberman's left. Even his 2000 running mate, Al Gore, dissed him by endorsing Dean (with Al's accustomed finesse and prescience).

So, John Kerry, who, after all, won Iowa? Possibly. But you have to ask: How serious is a candidate who votes for war in Iraq but against the money to stabilize the country?

The same reproach can be, and should be, leveled at Wesley Clark, who, we now learn, told a congressional committee, prior to the Iraqi intervention, that Saddam appeared to have weapons of mass destruction. Try wringing such an admission out of him now.

Dick Gephardt, a fairly serious candidate, is exiting the presidential race after running fourth in Iowa, so that leaves ... John Edwards? It is hard to get much feel at all for Edwards, the millionaire trial lawyer and senator from North Carolina. What is he for? What is he against? What did he ever do, come to think of it, besides earn money in the courtroom? He is (somewhat unaccountably, given his past occupation) the Nice Candidate. That's nice, certainly. But niceness is not quite the same thing as seriousness. A boyish-looking trial lawyer as leader of the free world. Um ...

In due course, the Democrats will settle on someone because they have to. And then? The job will be to defeat a thoroughly serious and, at this stage, thoroughly seasoned president on the grounds that ... that he gave us back too much of our tax money? That he should have left Iraqis in the sanguinary embrace of Saddam Hussein?

Somehow, the more volatile Democrats have convinced themselves that Americans in general hate and despise George Bush the way they do. This illusion has helped produce one of the most helpless presidential slates an American political party has ever fielded. The damage to a formerly serious party stands to get worse -- far worse -- from here on out.