A few nights ago, over drinks, a friend asked me what the rationale for a Clark candidacy would be. Not the substantive rationale, mind you, but the political one. How could he win? What point would his entry into the race have at this point, and so forth?
Here’s how I’d describe it.
Howard Dean is now by many measures the front-runner in the Democratic primary campaign. Though he lags in the national polls, he’s at least in the hunt in both Iowa and New Hampshire. He’s raising money at a faster clip than any of the other candidates. And he’s clearly generated the most excitement.
But Dean is an insurgent candidate, often campaigning explicitly against Washington and the party establishment. By many measures he’s campaigning to various left-leaning elements in the Democratic party base — notwithstanding his previous record as a fairly centrist governor of Vermont. I say this all not with any judgment attached, just as a description of the developments in the race, as nearly I can ascertain them.
Now, by the normal laws of political gravitation, Dean’s sustained surge should have forced a coalescence around one of the several more-centrist-minded establishment candidates — Kerry, Gephardt, Edwards, Lieberman. With Dean catching fire, those who aren’t comfortable with his candidacy should be getting behind one candidate in order to beat him. But that clearly has not happened.
In some ways this is a more striking development than Dean’s rise itself.
Now, why hasn’t that coalescence taken place? I think the answer is elementary. None of the current candidates has passed the audition for the job. Lieberman’s campaign is generally believed to be moribund (and I like the guy). Edwards has gone absolutely nowhere. Gephardt has bet everything on getting the support of organized labor. But if he gets it, it’ll basically be a mercy … well, I don’t want to be off-color. But, you know what I mean. Kerry is basically the establishment front-runner at the moment. But it’s an extremely anemic frontrunnerdom. He’s basically the front-runner by default because all the other potential frontrunners who haven’t caught fire are doing even worse than he is.
What this all tells me is that there is a vacuum with a lot of political forces pushing to fill it. And yet none of the current candidates has been capable of becoming the vehicle for those forces. I know these are some convoluted metaphors. But I trust my meaning is relatively clear.
Now, there are all sorts of reasons why late-entering, draft-so-and-so type candidacies never end up winning. But the vacuum I’ve just described is one Clark could potentially fill. At least he could get in the game and give it his best shot.
Clark’s other potential strength is that he combines outsider status and a thorough critique of the president, with impeccable national security credentials and domestic policy positions with a seemingly broad appeal.