Clark and Lieberman bow out

Posted: Oct 22, 2003 12:00 AM

Two spokesmen for the Democratic party in Iowa professed surprise and disappointment, and threatened reprisal and death for the two candidates who announced over the weekend that they were pulling out of the state caucus. General Clark, who was polling under ten percent, said that there simply was no way to catch up with the organization that other Democratic candidates had invested in beginning months earlier. Joe Lieberman wasn't that specific, but spokesmen put it this way: Why should Joe keep his 17 full-time vote recruiters in Iowa, where his poll standing wasn't all that encouraging? Why not send them to New Hampshire? Which is what he has done. "There is no victory in being fourth in Iowa."

Democratic chieftains in Iowa are of course dismayed. If you subtract two key candidates from their caucus, then all that you are left with is a popularity contest among the candidates who show up. State Democratic chairman Gordon Fischer, scowling, held up for review by Clark and Lieberman the images of two other candidates who had spurned Iowa. Look what happened to Al Gore in 1988! And to John McCain in 2000!

But with all due respect to Iowa, there is a creeping recognition among analysts that it does not really pay off to bind the presidential political future to the Iowa casino on January 19. One of the perceived favorites in Iowa at the moment is Dick Gephardt, who is to Democratic politics what Old Faithful is to Yellowstone Park, always there, always institutionally reassuring, guaranteed not ever to cross a picket line. Are the Iowa Democrats promising that if Gephardt wins in Iowa, he will this time win at the convention in Boston in July?

The other front-runner is the ingratiating Howard Dean. He makes people smile because of his candor and high-boil affability. He has the problem that his search for instant popularity among primary voters causes him to move from positions contrary to each other dizzily enough to qualify him for Whopper of the Week in Slate magazine. "I have never favored Social Security [eligibility] at the age of 70, nor do I favor one of 68" (August 6). "I would also entertain taking the retirement age to 68" (June 22). And of course there is a certain whirl of nature that attends exuberantly categorical statements of the kind Dean is identified with. He will move the troops out of Iraq and repeal all of Bush's tax cuts. Perhaps he is waiting till the closing days of the Iowa caucus to announce that he will repeal Muslim fundamentalism.

The stake U.S. Democrats have in events in Iowa is felt keenly in tracing the speed of the political calendar. New Hampshire happens one week after Iowa, on January 27. Exactly one week after that, you get South Carolina-and also Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. At that point you have four long days to wait for Michigan, then one more day for Maine, two more for Tennessee and Virginia. Then Wisconsin on February 17, Idaho on February 24, and just about everybody else on March 2.

The nervous Democrat, observing the leftward heel of the candidates in the past few months, will understandably worry lest a launch in Iowa set up a momentum that would take the party right to the nomination in July and defeat in November. They have been listening to Dean and Gephardt denouncing George W. Bush in terms so categorical as to arouse an understandable indignation in those who voted for Bush. If he is the same monstrous creature depicted by Dean and Gephardt and Kerry and Edwards, maybe he should be not only defeated, but exiled. And those who voted for him? Placed on probation for a few years, before being set loose to vote again?

In their wildness and creeping ferocity, the Democratic campaigners welcome any fuse-shortening between Iowa and the nomination. But if the cordite being lighted in Iowa sizzles through to climax in Boston for a candidate that 49 other states have second thoughts about, the Democrats need to worry that second thoughts aren't given much of a chance to be thought, in the lightning-speed political calendar.

If the absence of the two candidates from Iowa has the effect of making the Iowa caucus less than conclusive, much will have been gained. Party elders might then look up at Joe Lieberman, and decide to go for the unglamorous senator who, however, has not lost his head.