Building a clear conservative-liberal campaign

Posted: Jan 29, 2004 12:00 AM

So now it's probably not going to be Howard Dean after all, but John Kerry.

Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire evidently understood that Dean had absolutely no prayer of defeating President Bush, and fell in behind someone who thinks similarly but presents differently.

Rationally so or not, many politicians have defining moments:

John F. Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you..." and Barry Goldwater's "extremism in defense of virtue is no vice." Jimmy Carter and the killer rabbit and "malaise" and lusting in his heart. Ronald Reagan's "it's my microphone, I paid for it" and "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Ed Muskie's tears; Michael Dukakis in the tank. George Bush I's "read my lips." Bill Clinton and the bimbo eruptions, etc.

Howard Dean's was the post-Iowa outburst. Things had been building to it - in his statement that the removal (and capture) of Saddam had not made America safer, and in his general abrasiveness revealed perhaps most tellingly prior to the Iowa vote when he ripped a seemingly innocent elderly questioner, snippily telling him to shut up and sit down. The post-Iowa outburst simply confirmed what many had only suspected.

After that, Dean had practically no chance of carrying New Hampshire or any other state. In New Hampshire he metamorphosed into Mr. Kinder Gentler. And when the New Hampshire results were in he tried to put on his best face with Larry King, saying: "We came in second and I think that's good. We recovered from our performance in Iowa. I'm very pleased." This from a man who, with a second-place finish 13 points behind Kerry, had imploded and blown a 25-percent lead just three weeks earlier. So long, Howard.

To argue that Kerry's surge into the lead is an incipient victory for moderation is to miss the key point that most of the pack consists of unapologetic denizens of the fever swamps of the left - except for Joe Lieberman.

Wesley Clark, embarrassed in a Democratic race by his own former Republicanism, has overcompensated with endorsements from George McGovern and Madonna. John Edwards is the favorite of the trial lawyers, who comprise one of the major paying leftie lobbies. Carter, Bill Bradley, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and Al Gore - who most recently distinguished himself by blasting President Bush as a "moral coward", endorsed Dean.

And then there's Kerry: soporific speaker, indifferent legislator (what major legislation bears his name?), equivocator (staking out positions on practically every side of every issue), longtime self-groomer for this presidential run, ape of the identically initialed John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and tool of the bearer of the Old Left flame - Teddy Kennedy. This is the one-and-the-same Kennedy who terms the war to remove Saddam Hussein "a political product marketed by Bush" and immoderately terms Bush judicial nominees thwarted by Kennedy and his Senate cronies "Neanderthals."

The Democrats are all over the place on Iraq, on security generally and on taxes. Kerry says Bush misled us into war and asks heavily, "What kind of foreign policy do we want in the White House?" His answer: a bigger role for the useless UN. (That's notably interesting when Bill Clinton, who is much less liberal than Kerry, has just returned from Qatar, where he closed a Brookings-sponsored conference by making the case for what the United States is doing in the Middle East and saying that post-9/11 he would have followed a course there identical to the one followed by President Bush.)

Kerry campaigns against Dick Cheney and Halliburton. He wants higher taxes, thinks health care should be a government-funded "right," and - royally rich as he is - plays the game of pitting class against class. He hungers for more regulation on business and the environment. Teddy wouldn't be backing him if the two disagreed on very much.

The moderate in the race is Joe Lieberman. He is the Gore running-mate now spurned by Gore. He is the college liberal who has remained in one place ideologically while his party's train rolled on to ever more distant stops. He is the one who warns that Gore, Dean, Kerry, Hillary, Teddy, et al. want to return the party to the McGovernite hour when it was "too often in the political wilderness."

He says: "I'm not going to stand by and let this Democratic Party that I've belonged to all my life be taken back to where it was before Bill Clinton. ... The Democratic bird does not fly with (just) one wing." Having bypassed Iowa to concentrate on New Hampshire, Lieberman - who may hold the best chance to beat Bush - ran fifth and likely will be out of the running within weeks. One of his few party colleagues who thinks the way he does - retiring Georgia Senator Zell Miller - will campaign for Bush.

Lieberman has said further:

"This campaign for the Democratic nomination is fundamentally a referendum within our party about whether we're going to build on the Clinton transformation in our party in 1992 that reassured people we were strong on defense, we were fiscally responsible, we cared about values, we were interested in cutting taxes for the middle class and working with business to create jobs."

Columnist Richard Cohen terms Lieberman "a moderate in a party in no mood for moderation." Columnist William Safire, a conservative to Cohen's liberal, describes "the political philosophy" embraced by Kerry (and Edwards) as "lopsidedly leftist: In this campaign, they have clawed their way up the greasy pole of politics with a pitch that is pure populism. Both men have risen high in Democratic polls with a brand of class resentment and soak-the-rich rhetoric rooted in the old-fashioned liberalism of Ted Kennedy."

If the fall presidential campaign is to be a race between George Bush and John Kerry, the latter will give the former perhaps a tougher fight than Howard Dean would. The nation is closely divided between Republicans and Democrats, with numbers that have changed little since the 2000 cliffhanger. And the Democrats, who usually kiss and make up better than Republicans do after hard-fought primary campaigns, likely will be largely reunited.

But in such a race Bush would be more comfortable and open in his conservatism, and Kerry's liberalism would be more glaring - and self-declared conservative voters outnumber self-declared lefties nearly 2-1. Unless the Democrats really get smart and nominate Lieberman, the clear moderate in the race will be Bush - and history demonstrates that moderation, or moderate conservatism, tends to roll over liberalism nearly every time.