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Not a Year for None of the Above

By Frank Gruber

As my silent protest about how long presidential election campaigns have become, I try not to pay too much attention until the start of the actual election year.

But now that it's 2004 I'll be obsessed with polls and every which way the wind blows.

It's true that I did attend a John Dean event in a house in Santa Monica last March, out of curiosity. The donation my wife and I made has reaped hundreds of emails from Joe Trippi.

I understand that with the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary so early -- ridiculously early -- the candidates have to raise money and campaign. But, sorry, I haven't felt compelled to watch a debate.

I'll support whoever gets the Democratic nomination, so what's the point?

Of course, I read the news of the campaign, but the coverage is so predictable. The media have certain angles -- always negative -- that they can reliably use to sell papers and commercials. These stories are easy to write, because the reporters and pundits write them every four years, and so that's the news we get.

You know what stories I'm talking about -- those that recount the "vicious backbiting" among the candidates, who are "tearing each other apart," who are giving the other side -- in this year, the Republicans -- ammunition for November.

Primary candidates attacking each other are the proverbial dogs biting the proverbial men. Has there ever been a presidential primary season when the candidates of the non-incumbent party did not attack each other? Do primary battles have much do with who wins in November? Are Howard Dean's attacks on "Washington Democrats" or the other candidates' attacks on Dean worse than the Democratic candidates' attacks on each other in 1992? Or, from a Republican point of view, in 1980 (Reagan/Bush) or 1988 (Bush/Dole/Robertson) or 2000 (Bush/McCain)?

Then there are the variants of the "seven dwarves" story -- or in this case, nine -- whereby the press sees a multitude of candidates and can't visualize any of them as president, no matter how well their qualifications compare to those of past (or present) presidents.

This year there's been a lot of play with the "politics of hate" story, which is a variant of the "decline of civility" story, whereby reporters and pundits bemoan the degradation of American politics -- as if it's news that candidates and their supporters express anger and contempt for politicians on the other side.

So, most of the coverage of the campaign has been ignorable if not ignoble.

In fact, the big story this year so far as I can see it -- based on talking to every Democrat I know -- is how united the Democrats are. It's been a long time since a left-wing Democrat has told me that there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats. Even Michael Moore is on the bus. Thank President Bush for pulling the scales from so many eyes.

Here's an anecdote. I was in Pittsburgh over the holidays. On Christmas Day I was in a movie theater waiting for the show to begin. Behind me two people were talking about a column conservative William Safire had written saying the Democrats were at each other's throats and that if Howard Dean did not win the nomination he might bolt and run as a third-party candidate.

Safire went on to say -- you can imagine the condescension -- that this would be bad for the country because President Bush would win in a landslide that would be terrible because "tyrannous majorities" led to "big trouble." (Worse than tyrannous minorities?)

After the movie, when we were leaving, I noticed that one of the people I had overheard was wearing a Howard Dean sweatshirt. Intrigued, I asked him if he, as a Dean supporter, might not support the Democratic nominee if it isn't Dean, as Safire had predicted. "Are you crazy?" was his response. He not only would vote for "anyone but Bush," but he was sure that the Democrat, whoever it is, would win.

Okay, it's just an anecdote, and I'm not willing to make any predictions myself, but further conversation revealed that this Dean supporter was a genuine Pennsylvania swing voter -- he said that in 1992 he had voted for Bush I.

At the moment, there are four candidates who have a chance to win the nomination -- Dean, Wesley Clark, Richard Gephardt, and (holding on by his fingernails) John Kerry. Despite their differences every Democrat I've talked to would vote for any of them against Bush.

Usually, the California primary is too late to have our votes make a difference, but this year the primary is March 2. With less than 60 days to go, I as a Democrat, have to start some serious evaluating, because the nomination may not be settled by then.

Dean has momentum. But he also has the burden of high expectations, and it's unlikely that victories in the hothouse caucuses of Iowa or in his neighboring small New England state of New Hampshire will close the deal.

By the same token, Dean is strong enough nationally to withstand losses in southern and midwestern states on February 3. Of course, if Dean does well in the south, or if he dominates the mid-February primaries and caucuses, he'll be in like Flynn and the presumptive nominee by the time California Democrats vote.

But I expect that will not happen. His rivals, especially Clark and Gephardt, are holding their own, absorbing strength from the inevitable decline of candidates like John Edwards and Joe Lieberman.

So, whom to choose? This is one year to forget the cynicism. Dean, Clark, Gephardt and Kerry each has what it takes to be a fine president. I plan to keep that that in mind over the next two months even as I make distinctions based on their weaknesses.

I like Dean for his willingness to tell the truth about where this country is, but I'm wary of what he is -- a small-state governor. The last two Democratic presidents were small-state governors and they were both political disasters, turning Democratic majorities in Congress into minorities, accomplishing little.

By contrast, I like Clark because of his familiarity with the big world, but I worry that he's never been a politician, never run for anything.

Gephardt is the Democrat with whom I have had over the years the most differences when it comes to policy -- I am a free-trader -- but he may have been right about globalization and in any case I admire his tenacity. Of all the candidates he knows Washington best and would likely make the most effective president.

Kerry? There's nothing I don't like about Kerry except -- and this is a big one -- so far he's been an inept campaigner. I liked everything about Dukakis, too.

Oh well. I better check the schedule for the next debate.
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