Keep an Eye on Edwards

Traditional political wisdom adheres to the Caligula Theory of Presidential Politics, named after the first century Roman Emperor noted for viciousness and ruthless cruelty. The central tenet of the theory is that if either major political party nominated Caligula for president, Caligula would still get a third of the vote as a consequence of party loyalty. The real competition in a presidential campaign is for the relatively independent and moderate middle third. A corollary of this theory is that in the nomination process, candidates move to the Left or Right, depending on party, to secure the nomination from the ideologically motivated partisans. Once nominated, candidates race to the center to grab the moderate votes necessary for victory.

This year some political analysts are wondering out loud whether this theory is no longer valid. What if the electorate has been thoroughly polarized so that we are a 50-50 country? The winner may not be the one who appeals to the center, but the one who energizes his partisans the most and generates the greatest turnout. Forget the center and just pump up your partisans until they explode all over the polls.

This latter theory was dealt a blow last week with the unexpectedly poor showing of Howard Dean in Iowa after he led in the polls for so long. There is little doubt, that Dean has still captured the angry anti-Bush vote. However, one consequence is that Dean has developed a reputation for meanness and rashness. Giving voice to an unsubstantiated theory that President George Bush had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, is reckless and indecent. When Iowa Democrats began to seriously consider Dean they were chafed by his abrasiveness. They began to doubt whether they wanted Dean to be periodically visiting their living rooms for at least the next four years through the medium of television.

We should add a note of caution here. Perhaps the new conventional wisdom is wrong about Dean. If the rest of the country does not share the uncomfortable feeling of Iowans, perhaps Dean could now be immunized from future criticism of intemperance. Much like the Clinton campaign dismissed womanizing issues as old news after the 1992 New Hampshire primary, a Dean campaign could say that the issue of rashness has already been dealt with.

Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer was lamenting this week that the democratic process had succeeded in weeding out the most unelectable candidate. He was “hoping against hope that he [Dean] could just hang on — project sanity — long enough to win Iowa and New Hampshire and wrap up the nomination before the Democrats could come to their senses.” There may still be hope for Krauthammer.

From a tactical standpoint, Republicans would have the most difficulty running against Joe Lieberman. Lieberman voted for the resolution granting President George Bush the authority to attack Iraq and has had the intellectual consistency to not flee from the vote. This makes Senators John Kerry and John Edwards appear mercurial and politically expedient. Kerry and Edwards voted for the war when it appeared to be the politically wise strategy and distanced themselves from the vote when political calculations changed. Lieberman could make the argument that he, like Bush, takes national security seriously and believes the world is better off without another Islamofascist dictator. Lieberman argues that he would exercise greater expertise in execution of foreign policy. Lieberman is at least as affable as Bush and Americans know Lieberman and are comfortable with him. His primary downside is that he is close enough to Bush on the key issue of Iraq that the electorate might simply decide, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “it was not best to swap horses in mid-stream.” However, this speculation is entirely academic. The Democratic electorate is too angry this year to nominate such a decent and comfortable candidate.

Though John Kerry can run as a legitimate war hero, he cannot run away from his long legislative record. It is hard for any legislator to run for the presidency because legislative process is murky. It is easy to find votes that are now embarrassing and Kerry has had 19 years of votes to comb through. Moreover, Kerry is a laconic northeasterner that may be able to win the Liberal northeast that will vote for any Democratic candidate, but who will find it difficult to develop a rapport with Southerners.

At the current time, General Wesley Clark’s star seems to be rapidly setting. He appears a slave to ambition and a little too opportunistic in his party affiliation. Calling the president “unpatriotic” may draw cheers and howls among Democratic partisans, but will appear rash and unfair to moderates. It appears that the Clinton Administration fired Wesley Clark for character-related issues. If Clark is nominated, expect to hear former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Hugh Shelton explain what happened. It will likely not be flattering to Clark.

While it remains to be seen whether he can appeal sufficiently well to New Hampshire voters to keep his candidacy viable, Senator John Edwards represents the most serious threat to Bush. His relative inexperience could be a negative, but voters have been willing to elect others with modest experience. An embarrassingly successful personal injury trial lawyer, Edwards has a smooth easy Southern charm that was apparently very effective at swaying juries. Those who have heard him deliver stump speeches testify to his effectiveness. James Carville has been quoted as saying that Edwards gives the best stump speech he has ever heard. At times Edwards can seem a little smarmy, but as long as he remains disciplined he is amazing effective at retail politics.

The fact that Edwards’s campaign enjoys the generous support of trial lawyers eager to prevent tort reform could prove to be an embarrassing negative. Of all the candidates he has been the least forth-coming in his campaign finances and has more contributors who have made the maximum $2000 contribution. Nonetheless, if he can appeal sufficiently to Southerners he might loosen Republican dominance in the South and pose as serious threat to Bush’s re-election prospects. If he manages to become the front-runner after the Southern primaries, it will be interesting to see how well he stands up to the media scrutiny that is sure to follow. While it is never wise to under-estimate any candidate, at this point, Republicans have more to fear from Edwards than Kerry.

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