2004 Shaping Up to Be McGovern Versus Reagan

Posted December 5, 2003 at 10:58am

This looks to me like a déjà vu presidential election, with the Democratic candidates all resembling their party’s past losers and President Bush setting himself up for a 1972- or 1984-style landslide. [IMGCAP(1)]

Leading the Democrats, we have former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, reprising a militant anti-war role previously played by Sen. George McGovern (S.D.), who carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia in 1972 against President Richard Nixon.

Next in line is Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), who closely resembles 1984 candidate Walter Mondale, the tax-raising favorite of trade unions and other Democratic interest groups, who carried only Minnesota and D.C. in his loss to President Ronald Reagan.

The parallels don’t stop there. Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) desperately wants to be compared to his state’s last war-hero president, John F. Kennedy.

But it looks as though he’s going to be even less successful than “Massachusetts liberal” Michael Dukakis, who at least got nominated in 1988 before losing to President Bush’s father in a near-landslide.

Following on, we have Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), who’s reminiscent of countless other Senators who convinced themselves they are presidential material, but went nowhere.

The long line includes Harold Hughes (Iowa) in 1972; Fred Harris (Okla.), Frank Church (Idaho) and Birch Bayh (Ind.) in 1976; Alan Cranston (Calif.) and Fritz Hollings (S.C.) in 1984; Joseph Biden (Del.), and Paul Simon (Ill.) in 1988; and Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Bob Kerrey (Neb.) in 1992.

But wait, we’re not done with parallels yet. The Rev. Al Sharpton, of course, is the natural heir to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who ran in 1984 and 1988.

Sharpton obviously aims to succeed Jackson as the top political spokesman for black America, and his fellow presidential candidates, ever deferential, seem to be helping him do so.

Then there’s Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), reprising the unsuccessful hawk candidacy of Sen. Henry M. Jackson (Wash.) in 1976, and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, playing a role originated by war hero Sen. John Glenn (Ohio), who went nowhere in 1984.

Then again, Clark also brings back memories of Gen. Al Haig, another former NATO commander who went no place as a Republican candidate in 1988.

Finally, we have former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.), who is not the first African-American woman to run for the Democratic nomination. That was Rep. Shirley Chisholm (N.Y.), who ran on the slogan “unbought and unbossed” in 1972.

The only candidate in this field whose precursor I can’t exactly identify is Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio). One might compare him ideologically to the very liberal 1976 candidate, Rep. Mo Udall (Ariz.), but Kucinich is nowhere near as funny, lovable and accomplished.

Starting back at the top, I admit there are differences between Dean and McGovern. In Dean’s favor, McGovern was a down-the-line liberal and a “Come Home, America” isolationist.

If nominated, Dean could shift to the center in the general election, portray his foreign policy dovishness as restricted to Iraq and remind voters that he’s a budget hawk.

On the other hand, McGovern was the straight-shooter that Dean only claims to be and a likeable person, as well. All Dean’s position-switching — on trade, Medicare, defense spending and business regulation — will be replayed endlessly by the Bush campaign.

Moreover, if Dean tries to say that he’s not a “McGovern” on foreign policy by promising to prosecute a vigorous war on terrorism, the Bush political machine will counter by saying that Iraq and the war on terrorism are one and the same. Right now, the public seems to buy that.

Both Dean and Gephardt want to repeal every cent of Bush’s tax cuts, even those for the middle class, which makes them far more vulnerable to the charge of being a “tax- raiser” than Walter Mondale ever was.

By Election Day, Dean would be made out to be McGovern and Mondale rolled into one. Gephardt, if he wins the nomination, would be just Mondale.

And there’s a Dukakis parallel to all the 2004 Democrats, who sound like “proud members of the ACLU” when they attack Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The only hope Democrats now appear to have of beating Bush lies in Iraq’s turning into the “quagmire” they claim it is.

That would place Bush in the historical position of Lyndon Johnson in 1968 — though Bush won’t suffer Johnson’s fate (and Jimmy Carter’s in 1980) of being challenged for his own party’s nomination.

Democrats had hoped to see Bush retrace the steps of his father, who won the first Iraq war but got beat in 1992 amid a weak economy.

Hating Bush, Democrats also want to make him out to be another Richard Nixon.

From the beginning, though, Bush has plotted to be Ronald Reagan, stimulating the economy with defense spending and tax cuts, running up big deficits and causing the economy to boom. The latest growth numbers indicate that the plan is working.

Moreover, people like Bush the way they did Reagan. History is repeating itself.