Democratic Dynamics

Democrats are waging a two-dimensional presidential campaign. It's the insiders versus the outsiders and the "true" Democrats versus the "new" Democrats.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and retired Gen. Wesley Clark are outsiders. Just as Bill Clinton was in 1992, Dean is the former governor of a small, out-of-the-way state who has never worked in Washington. Clark, meanwhile, made his career in the military and has never been an elected politician. He can claim ties to Clinton, too. Clark is from Little Rock and has opened his campaign headquarters in the Arkansas capital. More important, several former Clinton administration officials are working for Clark.

Dean never tires of reminding Democrats that his leading competitors are Washington insiders. "Here are the differences between me and the other folks, from Washington," he said during the October 9 debate in Phoenix. Dean is equally tireless in arguing that he represents the true Democratic faith, which he claims the Washington insiders have sold out. "Let me tell you ... why the Democrats aren't winning," he said in the debate. "It is because we don't stand up for what we believe in."

Clark is literally a new Democrat. He switched his voter registration to Democratic only after entering the race. "I want to say, Wes Clark, welcome to the Democratic presidential campaign," Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut remarked with a hint of sarcasm.

During the debate, Clark's Democratic credentials came under attack from all sides. Dean criticized Clark for advising a New Hampshire congressional candidate last year to support the resolution authorizing President Bush to use force in Iraq. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts attacked Clark for praising Bush administration officials at a GOP fundraiser in May 2001, "just a few days before [Sen.] Jim Jeffords [of Vermont] switched and became an independent because of what they were doing to this country."

Clark's defense? He said he'd been speaking as a non-partisan military man and, "like every other American, I wanted the national security team to be successful." Clark depicted himself as having become disillusioned with the Bush administration: "Americans believe that they selected a compassionate conservative," he said, adding that Bush has been "a radical, not a compassionate conservative."

Lieberman was particularly harsh in his criticism of Clark, saying, "I've been very disappointed, since Wes Clark came into this race, about the various positions he has taken on the war against Saddam Hussein." The attack was rather surprising, coming from another new Democrat who supported the Iraq war. Lieberman's attack on Clark was a way of deflecting attention from his own problems with liberals. "We need a candidate who will meet the test of reaching a conclusion and having the courage to stick with it," Lieberman said.

Lieberman and Clark make a claim to electability, precisely the claim Clinton made when he ran as a new Democrat in 1992. Lieberman said, "I believe strongly that I am the candidate who can beat Bush, because I can take him on where he's supposed to be strong but he's not—on defense and values—and then beat him where we know he is weak, on his failed economic policies."

Dean makes no concessions on electability: "The last poll I saw showed that there are five of us up here that are going to beat George Bush. So the question is not whether we're going to beat George Bush, but what kind of president do you want."

Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, like Lieberman, is an insider. Someone who's a former House minority leader is about as much of a Washington insider as possible. Gephardt competes with Dean for the support of Democratic true believers. Both candidates favor a complete repeal of the Bush tax cuts to pay for a universal health insurance program.

Dean has attacked Gephardt for leading the fight to give Bush "a blank check to go to war in Iraq." Gephardt fights back by challenging Dean's ideological credentials. "He was in agreement with the Republican stand to have a deep, devastating cut in Medicare," Gephardt said. He also treats his own insider status as an advantage. In Phoenix, Gephardt laid claim to Clinton's economic record. "I led the fight for the Clinton economic program in 1993," Gephardt said. "It created 22 million new jobs."

In the Dean campaign, Iraq is the central issue. Gephardt has decided to stake his claim elsewhere—not Iraq, jobs. "We need to do something bold to stimulate this economy and solve what I believe is our major problem," Gephardt said.

The true Democrats are tapping into anger at the Bush administration—in Dean's case, over Iraq; in Gephardt's case, over jobs. The new Democrats, Clark and Lieberman, are making an appeal to electability: If you really want to beat Bush, you'd better nominate a moderate with credibility beyond the party faithful.

The outsiders, Dean and Clark, claim to be the candidates of change—the posture that got Arnold Schwarzenegger elected governor of California. Dean said, "Our campaign is changing the political system in this country." That would normally throw insider candidates, such as Gephardt, on the defensive. But Gephardt can lay claim to what is likely to be the Democrats' strongest issue—the Bush economy versus the Clinton economy.