Who can beat George W. Bush? First in Iowa, then in New Hampshire, then in states from South Carolina to Washington, all Democratic caucus or primary voters will be asking that question. Not all will vote their answer—some will vote for the candidate who best espouses their beliefs no matter his chances—but many will. Primary elections usually turn on "electability."
A just-released SurveyUSA poll shows Howard Dean leading Dick Gephardt in Iowa by 31 to 26, but the methodolgy of this poll is irregular, and other polls have shown him either tied with or slightly behind Gephardt. In New Hampshire, Dean is the clear front-runner. Anything can happen, but the informed buzz from pundits and party operatives is that one of them will be the nominee.
That they speak to historically distinct parts of the Democratic-primary electorate argues for a two-man race. Dean appeals to more upscale issue-oriented liberals and their college-age children angry over the war in Iraq and the Democratic leadership's failure to stand up to Bush on that and other issues, Gephardt to blue-collar interest-driven Democrats and older voters concerned primarily with economic security. Dean is the insurgent, Gephardt the regular—the classic antithesis of Democratic nomination fights.
Another candidate could emerge, but let's assume this primary sprint will come down to Dean vs. Gephardt. Which man would be the stronger candidate against the President?
They share a liability that makes them weaker candidates than the other Democratic prospects: they would repeal all of the Bush tax cuts. Senators Kerry, Edwards, and Lieberman, as well as General Wesley Clark, would repeal only the cuts for the wealthiest Americans, leaving in place the child tax credit and other elements of the cuts for the middle class. In the first presidential debate, if either Dean or Gephardt is the nominee, George W. Bush will point to his opponent and say, "If your family income is $40,000 a year, this man will raise your taxes by over $1,200"—and for once, he'd be telling the truth about the distribution of his tax cuts. Gephardt or Dean would counter, "Yes, Mr. President, but with that $1,200 we will fund health insurance and education programs worth much more than that to middle-income families." But the programs are promises; the $1,200 savings is cash in hand.
That debate moment is the best argument for nominating someone other than Gephardt or Dean.
The main issue difference between them is the Iraq war. Gephardt, as House Minority Leader, helped draft the language of the resolution authorizing Bush to use force against Saddam Hussein. Recently he voted for Bush's $87 billion request to fund the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and make a down-payment on the rebuilding of both countries. Dean opposed the war and the $87 billion. According to the conventional wisdom, Dean is not electable because he opposed the war. But Dean can argue that, on the contrary, the polls suggest he is electable for just that reason.
Just a few months ago Bush's re-election seemed certain based on the war in Iraq. Now, "Bush's identification with the Iraq War is a net negative for his reelection," Ruy Teixeria, of the Century Foundation, concludes in his analysis of three polls conducted in early November. This reversal happened in three stages as the Bush Administration, having won the war, tragically miscalculated what it would take to win the peace. First Bush's approval ratings for his general handling of foreign affairs fell; then his ratings for handling Iraq fell; finally, in the most recent polls, his ratings for handling the "war on terror" have fallen beneath 60 percent for the first time since September 11. Bush has called the guerrilla war in Iraq "the central front in the war on terror," thereby linking failure in the one with failure in the other. The 79 percent of Americans who believe the war on terror either has not changed or has been worsened by Iraq have taken him at his word.
Bush's misstatements about Iraq's attempts to procure nuclear material, along with his unsubstantiated claims about Iraq's WMD and its "imminent threat" to the U.S., have also weakened his reputation for integrity, which, along with his handling of foreign affairs, was thought to be his main political asset. Fifty-three percent think he either withheld information about Iraq in the lead-up to war or lied. Only 42 percent see him as "honest and frank." Ominously for Bush, 60 percent of Independents hold these views.
More bad news from Iraq will only cause Bush's poll numbers to sink lower, and a recently leaked CIA report predicts that even worse news—more dead American soldiers, more bombed buildings, more chaos—may lie ahead. Iraq, in short, could become Bush's biggest electoral liability.
Among the leading candidates only Governor Dean and General Wesley Clark, who also opposed the war, albeit more equivocally than Dean, can take full advantage of Bush's vulnerability on Iraq. Congressman Gephardt cannot. He may criticize the mess Bush has made of the occupation and of U.S. relations with the world, yet it is his war as much as Bush's. Many of Gephardt's Democratic colleagues in the House and Senate argued that Saddam could be contained, that regime change in Iraq would divert attention and resources from the war on terror, that the occupation of Iraq would be costly in terms of lives and money, and that the rest of the world would not help us bear that burden. They, like Dean and Clark, had the wisdom to see this debacle coming. Gephardt did not.
The case for Gephardt begins in Missouri, a critical swing state won by Bush in 2000 but in play if Gephardt, a St. Louis-area Congressman since 1976, is the nominee. Missouri is the bellwether state, having voted for the winner in twenty-four of the twenty-five presidential elections of the twentieth century. Gephardt argues that the election will be decided in the battleground states of the Midwest, and that his long record of opposing corporate-friendly trade deals that have cost hundreds of thousands of jobs in those states makes him the candidate who can beat Bush there and win the election.
If where he is from counts in Gephardt's favor, so does who he is. Gephardt would make a surer-footed nominee than the sometimes-volatile Dean. The soul of sincerity, Gephardt comes across on television as more likeable than Dean, more knowledgeable, and more mature. Finally, as the son of a truck driver and a mother who wound up with a pension of $42 a month even though she worked hard all her life, Dick Gephardt can attack Bush for diverting billions in federal subsidies and favors to his friends and contributors in the corporate elite with an authenticity that the Park Avenue-raised Yale-educated Dean, the soul of self-confidence, cannot muster. Bush has revived a model of governance pioneered by corrupt city bosses like Boston's James Michael Curley and Jersey City's Frank "I am the law" Hague: call it government for the connected. Bush gives favored industries or contractors subsidies or contracts and they kick back some of the swag to his political machine. This, I think, is his political glass jaw, exemplifying as it does the systemic corruption of American politics.
Dean is a riskier choice than Gephardt. He is also a more exciting one. The stark alternative—anti tax cut and anti-war— he represents, he argues, will draw voters to the polls who have dropped out of the electorate or supported third-party candidates because the Democrats offered an echo of the Republicans, not a choice. Dean assumes his dramatic contrast to Bush will mobilize young voters, nearly ten percent fewer of whom voted in 2000 than in 1992. But polls showing Bush with strong support among young people suggest that "Generation Dean" may extend no further than college campuses.
Bush is weak among seniors, and unlike young people, they vote. If Charlie Cook, the election analyst for National Journal is right and the GOP prescription-drug benefit under Medicare becomes "an albatross around the necks of Republicans and the Bush administration" in the election, then Gephardt's targeting of Democratic-leaning seniors looks like a sounder strategy than Dean's gamble on Bush-leaning young people. Moreover, Dean's call for an overhaul of Medicare in the mid-1990s, when he was a fiscally conservative governor of Vermont, may allow Bush to muddy the waters on Medicare "reform," which he could not do with Gephardt.
Dean or Gephardt? My hunch is that Dean's anti-war stance would get him a heavy vote in states the Democrats would carry anyway but would hurt him in swing states won by Clinton and lost by Gore—states like West Virginia, Arkansas, and Louisiana. There is not a state Dean would carry that Gephardt would lose, but Gephardt would be competitive in states Dean would lose. So is the answer to the question, "Who can beat George W. Bush?," Dick Gephardt? To end on a note of justified equivocation, perhaps.