Thursday, February 01, 2007

Assessing the Candidates: Two Minors of Note

As shocking as it is to think, it's nearly too late for minor candidates to jump in and hope to build the kind of momentum it takes to unseat the Hillary juggernaut. The field is so crowded at the top that it has claimed a few notables who might have made noise--Mark Warner, Russ Feingold, John Kerry, Evan Bayh. That leaves among the contenders a few no-chancers (Al Sharpton, Mike Gravel, Tom Vilsack, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden and, sad to say, Dennis Kucinich) and two who might be legit dark horses: Bill Richardson, who has formed an exploratory committee, and Wes Clark, who has not.

Neither one can run a traditional campaign. They must go viral, mount a charge like Dean did, and hope they can get enough press to vault them into serious contention.* Even then, the odds are very long. However, even without winning, they might be able to affect the course of things.

Bill Richardson
The resume of Bill Richardson will surprise folks mostly unfamiliar with the New Mexico governor. He served for 15 years in Congress before being tapped by Clinton as Secretary of Energy. He was later appointed as Ambassador to the UN, where his record earned him nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. But it is his record as governor that gives him the most credibility. He managed to impress rural and urban voters by balancing the budget and targeting poor citizens with tax cuts. He cruised to a second term victory last year with 69% of the vote.

As a candidate, Richardson is the only major declared candidate with executive experience. He can lay claim to the Clinton school of economics by what he did in NM, while the three Senators spar over dubious votes they were forced to cast as members of the minority. But he doesn't give anything away in terms of foreign policy experience--a rare combo in a candidate.

Of course, the big thing is his background: his mother was Mexican, and Richardson is making the bid to become the first Latino president. This would add an interesting political element to the campaign in any year, but given the furor over immigration, his candidacy has extra import. Furthermore, as a Western-states candidate, he can subvert the usual New England/Dixie Nascar/Elite Liberal dichotomy into which the presidential race inevitably devolves. I don't think he'll emerge as a major candidate, but if he plays his cards right, a Veep nod could come.

Wes Clark
First things first, Wes Clark is probably not running. Despite his resume and the impressive supporters who came forward in 2004, Clark bombed in the primaries. With even stiffer competition in '08, I can't imagine a smart guy like Clark thinks he's got a shot. On the other hand, he could run purely as a service to Dems as the credible war liberal.

Dems have still not found their voice following the Iraq debacle. Obama has been a consistent anti-war politician, but he's not yet perfectly comfortable talking foreign policy. Edwards would rather avoid the subject altogether. Hillary's Thatcherite grit isn't a foreign policy so much as a PR strategy for the first serious female contender. Foreign policy isn't an either/or prospect, and the most credible candidates know this. But former generals, unlike young Senators, don't sound wishy-washy when they talk nuance. A military candidate could be a huge boon to the Dems as they cast around for direction. He can't win, but he can play an important role.

Clark also makes an attractive Veep candidate for a strong enough top-halfer on the ticket (ie, not Edwards).

*To get a sense of how far back the minor candidates are in terms press coverage, if you do name searches on "Bill Richardson," you get 8300. Wes Clark gets a mere 1100 hits. Hillary gets 23,000, and Obama 20,000.


A little bird said...

Wes was my favorite candidate last time around. I was wondering if we'd see him again. He doesn't have much name recognition going for him so, like you said, he'd really have to heat things up in a hurry.

Blue said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blue said...

Why so dismissive of Chris Dodd? I'd put him in the same long-shot league with Richardson. Nobody knows either one of these guys.

I can't speak for Richardson but if the Democratic base knew more about Dodd, I think they'd take to him right away. He's tough, he's more honest than not, he's smart, and he has a lot of - what's that term the DLC likes to throw around? - gravitas on tv, even more in person. He reminds me a bit of George Mitchell in that way (we missed the boat on that one, Big Time, imo).

Zak J. said...

Richardson and Clark are the only two Democrats running who have any executive experience. Giuliani and Romney can both claim that. Clinton, Obama, Edwards, et al cannot.

On the politics of identity thing, Richardson has never been shy about his heritage, but he's never run on his race as a factor either, which I respect. He's by far the most qualified to actually BE president, though that seems to count for precious little.

Jeff Alworth said...

Chris Dodd doesn't have national presence to rise to major candidate status in this field. Maybe he'll contribute something as a minor candidate, but it doesn't seem likely. On the other hand, politics is weird business.

Zak, I'd argue Hillary has executive experience, too. She was more involved than any first lady in the happenings in the West Wing. It's more germaine to the office than Clark's, too. Executive experience isn't all it's cracked up to be, though. Dubya had it, and look what a mess he made of things. His dad was no great shakes, either. On the other hand, LBJ and JFK seemed to take to the office fairly well, despite backgrounds in the legislative branch.

Anonymous said...

Richardson is my #1 choice right now, but I'm concerned that if he gains momentum, he will fall prey to an unfortunate internal dynamic of the Democratic Party: the deference granted to ethnic-group identity politics. As far as I know, Richardson neither hides his ethnicity not makes a big deal of it. It's just part of him and he's comfortable in his own skin. But there's always going to be a certain faction of Democrats who would want him to be an overtly Hispanic candidate, to make a big deal about his ethnic background, just as surely as there are going to be people who won't vote for him because he represents their anxieties about immigration and Hispanic cultural influences in the US.