The first Democratic debate of the Presidential season took place last night in South Carolina, and the lack of public interest in the race–so far, at least–is inferrable from the fact that ABC, which sponsored the event, showed it on a tape delay at 1:30 in the morning.
Needless to say, I didn’t watch the broadcast, but my favorite moment, as reported by the Washington Post, is this one:
“Kerry also confronted Dean over a published statement questioning the Massachusetts senator’s courage on gay rights and health care issues. Noting his combat service in Vietnam, Kerry said, ‘I don’t need any lectures on courage from Governor Dean.'” Someone needs to explain the concept of self-parody to Kerry.
Poll results are discouraging for the Democrats. The three leaders so far are Lieberman at 29 percent, Gephardt at 19 percent, and Kerry at 14 percent. Carol Mosely Braun, carrying out her function of deflecting attention from Al Sharpton, is at 6 percent. John Edwards, viewed by many as a potentially formidable candidate, languishes at 4 percent, and Howard Dean, recipient of vast media attention and purported standard-bearer of the hard-left wing of the party, garners only 3% support.
The leading contenders fare poorly in matchups against President Bush; the Post doesn’t report precise data, and I haven’t seen these results, but the Post says that “Matched against Lieberman, Gephardt and Kerry, Bush is favored by about 3 in 5 Americans, while the three Democrats were supported by one-third or fewer.” So Bush is currently leading by about 60% to 33%, or worse.
Of course it’s very early, but with the primaries more front-loaded than ever, it won’t be easy for a dark horse to gain traction. The Democrats’ biggest problem, in my opinion, is that their most likely candidates lack the political skills to make up the ground necessary to beat the President. Lieberman and Gephardt are credible candidates, and Lieberman, in particular, is quite solid on defense. But as Presidential candidates, they are boring. Neither, in my judgment, has enough appeal to seriously challenge President Bush.
The primacy of national defense as an issue magnifies the already-fundamental difference between a successful legislator, like Lieberman and Gephardt, and a chief executive. Foreign policy in general, and war in particular, is inherently an executive function. In wartime, even the most powerful Senator is reduced to being, at best, a loyal supporter of the President. A “me too” posture on defense may be necessary to avoid getting slaughtered in 2004, but it is hard to see how such a message can enable a candidate as dull as Lieberman or Gephardt to beat President Bush.
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