A Democrat the Republicans Should Worry About

Originality is not safe. Trying to duplicate past successes is boring, but it offers the greatest chances for repeating. That explains why when one genre of television show is successful, like Survivor, the show is duplicated or permutations along the same theme appear. The same can be said of politics.

On the national level, Bill Clinton was the Democrat’s latest and biggest success. In 1991, fresh off the victory of the Gulf War, the first President George Bush’s approval rating was astronomical. Many of the Democratic heavy-weights, like then Senator Al Gore, declined to run. They did not want to squander an opportunity to be the party’s nominee in a futile effort. This left the field open for relative unknowns, like an obscure former Governor of a small southern state, Bill Clinton.

Random factors seemed to fall in Clinton’s favor. Although the recession had ended by early 1992, unemployment rates still had not responded and the economy appeared sluggish. This, accompanied by what some considered a diffident attitude by President Bush, who seemed preoccupied with foreign policy rather than domestic discontent, provided Clinton an opening. Moreover, maverick third-party candidate Ross Perot garnered 19% of the popular vote and may have very well tipped the outcome in the 1992 in Clinton’s favor. Nonetheless, give credit where credit is deserved, Clinton took the political gamble and won.

Clinton was the recipient of a few political advantages that have helped Democratic presidential hopefuls. First, he was from the South. No Democrat from a state north of the Mason-Dixon line has been elected President since 1960, when John Kennedy won. Not only have Democrats from the north, or northwest not won, they have been clobbered. Just ask George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis. Jimmy Carter from Georgia defeated President Gerald Ford in 1976 and Tennessee’s Al Gore won a popular national majority in 2000. If Gore had just managed to win his home state, he would have won in the Electoral College and be president today. It is clear, if the Democrats want to win, they would best look toward a candidate from the South.

Second, Clinton effectively nurtured an image as a moderate. He was a member of the Democratic Leadership Council that had tried to wrest the Democratic Party from its more Liberal elements that up until that point had doomed Democrats to losses in three sequential presidential elections. Jimmy Carter too had run as a fiscally conservative moderate. Whatever, one’s evaluation of how they governed, Clinton and Carter did not run as traditional Liberals.

If Democrats are looking for a candidate that has a reputation as a moderate and is from the South, Senator John Edwards from North Carolina, who just declared his intention to run for president, fits the bill. Add to that his youthful and vigorous appearance, and the current President George Bush could have a formidable opponent.

Bush’s current popularity ratings are high, but if the economy does not rebound and if the War on Terrorism is perceived in 2004 to be inconclusive, Bush like his father could prove to be more vulnerable than he now appears. If so, Edwards’ political bet could pay off.

David Broder of the Washington Post notes that Edwards’ political gamble in running for president may be an all or nothing proposition. Apparently, “Votes he cast on labor union matters and some social issues have won favor from important national Democratic constituencies but do not sit well with many voters at home.” Edwards appears to be lurching to the political Left for help in the Democratic primaries.

In dealing with a potential Edwards candidacy, Republicans would want to emphasize his more Liberal positions. What part of the political spectrum does John Edwards occupy?

Professor Keith Poole of the University of Houston uses an “Optimal Classification” algorithm to cluster Senators and Representatives based on their voting patterns. He can rank politicians as more or less Liberal or Conservative depending on how often their votes align with other Liberals or Conservatives. The rankings can be a little wacky because there are a lot of votes on matters that are more partisan and organizational than ideological. Nonetheless, the rankings are an interesting way to order by a combination of partisanship and ideology.

As one might expect in the 107th Senate, the three most Liberal Senators were Russell, Feingold (D-WI), Mark Dayton (D-MN), and Jon Corzine (D-NJ). Interestingly, the late Paul Wellstone (D-MN) ranked fourth. On the other end of this one-dimensional spectrum, the three most Conservative members of the Senate were Don Nickles (R-OK), Phil Gramm (R-TX), and Jon Kyl (R-AZ).

In such a ranking, John Edwards is only the 38th most Liberal member of the Senate. That places him toward the Conservative end of the Democrats. However, there is a significant distance between Republicans and Democrats and ordered ranking has its limitations. Being toward the Right of the Democratic Party does not necessarily place Edwards at the nation’s political center.

The Americans for Democratic Action score Edwards as having voting with them 70% of the time. The mean score for all Democrats is 86% and for all Republicans 11%. The other side of the political spectrum ranks Edwards in an analogous way. Where Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina gets a 99% ranking from the American Conservative Union, Edwards hovers between 12 and 16%.

Despite the label of moderate, it is reasonable to expect that Edwards is about as far Left as his constituency will allow and, like Lieberman in 2002, he might move further to the Left to please other Democrats.

Edwards’ background as an “aw shucks” sort of trial lawyer means not only will he have plenty of financial backing in the election, it means that he is skilled in talking everyday folks in to making themselves feel good by taking money from Peter to pay Paul.

The combination of Southern heritage, an appearance of moderation in ideology, and an ability to connect with ordinary people, will make Edwards a formidable candidate if he can survive the Democratic primaries. If their goal is to win the presidency in 2004, the Democrats could certainly do a whole lot worse than picking Edwards and not much better. He ought to be the candidate that Republicans fear most.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.