The Candidates Most Likely to Succeed?

Although the next President of the United States may now be the dogcatcher in some small town in Texas, the next candidate of the Democratic Party is probably serving in some other capacity even as we speak. Let’s start with a blank canvas and paint the portrait of who would be most likely to win the general election, given the recent history of elections and the Red State/Blue State state of our nation, and then take a look at who best fits that description. You may not agree with this analysis or its outcome; but it’s based upon just two, very reasonable assertions.

Assertion #1: Executives, not legislators, are elected Chief Executive.

Since FDR, there have been five governors elected President (FDR, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Geo. W. Bush), two Vice Presidents elected President (Nixon and Geo. H.W. Bush), three Vice Presidents who became President by succession (Truman, Johnson, and Ford) two of whom were subsequently elected President, and one general elected President (Eisenhower) — all becoming President after having last served in executive branch positions (and this doesn’t even include the Presidents who won re-election) — but since FDR, there has been only one senator elected President (the exceptionally charismatic JFK) and no congressmen or -women (at least without executive experience): That’s ten executives to one legislator, over the last seventy-plus years (and seven to nothing over the last forty).

Although they are often mentioned as leading Democratic contenders for 2008, Senators Clinton, Kerry, Edwards, and Bayh need not apply — at least by this analysis (more will follow in a moment): It’s a ten-to-one longshot to just get past the “Senator” thing. Why? Well, one answer often and correctly advanced is that legislators have long and complex legislative histories; and as we saw in Kerry’s campaign, providing carefully nuanced explanations for why you voted for or against each of the countless bills that came before you, especially if it carried unrelated riders, just won’t fit on a bumper sticker or in a thirty-second commercial. A less tactful answer is that executives act; legislators talk…and talk…and talk… And the people want action, not just talk.

Regardless of the why’s or wherefore’s, executive branch candidates have history on their side; and unless we intend on running former Vice President Mondale or Gore (the latter actually has been more comfortably outspoken after his campaign, but few of us want to re-live that history) or a former Cabinet officer (the last one of those to win was Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover) or a current or former military commander (Gen. Wesley Clark is a “good soldier” for the Party; but stressing military credentials plays to the Republicans’ strength, not our own, which is on domestic issues), then we had best turn to our dwindling list of current or former Democratic state governors — which brings us to my second assertion…

Assertion #2: The least difficult — that is, the most likely — way to win the general election is to hold onto each of the Blue States and then to win just enough of the Red States, particularly those we just barely lost, to gain the 18+ electoral college votes we need.

Looking at the 2004 election returns (and putting aside for the moment the entire issue of possible fraud), we see that there are only three Red States that have Democratic governors and that Kerry lost to Bush by less than ten percentage points: Our list of potential candidates thus narrows down to three, oft-mentioned Presidential contenders — Gov. Bill Richardson, of New Mexico (with 5 electoral votes, which Kerry lost by just 1%); Gov. Tom Vilsack, of Iowa (with 7 electoral votes, which Kerry lost by just 1%); and Gov. Mark Warner, of Virginia (with 13 electoral votes, which Kerry lost by 8%).

Doing the math — keeping all the Blue States blue and swinging at least 18 electoral votes from Red to Blue — and considering that our Presidential nominee will probably do more to swing the vote our way in his home state than a Vice Presidential nominee can probably do, we would need to nominate Mark Warner for President and either Tom Vilsack or (with no room for error) Bill Richardson as Vice President.

Nominating a governor from a state Redder than Virginia would make swinging his or her home state Blue even harder in the general election; nominating a governor from any state already Blue would do nothing, at least directly, to change our losing electoral college tally.

By the way, let’s pause to reconsider those senators on most observers’ short lists. Two of them are from states that will almost certainly be Blue regardless of who runs — Clinton, of New York (which Kerry won by 19%), and Kerry, of Massachusetts (which he won by 25%) — and the other two are from states that will almost certainly remain Red — Edwards, of North Carolina (which Bush won by 12%, even with a favorite son as the Democratic nominee for V.P.), and Bayh, of Indiana (which Bush won by 21%). In politics anything can happen, of course; but none of these potential nominees would probably change the electoral college vote in their home state. And coupled with the ten-to-one odds against a legislator, compared to an executive, winning, well, with all due respect, the senators just don’t seem like a good bet to me.

In short, “the Democrats most likely to succeed” are Gov. Mark Warner, of Virginia, for President, a “moderate populist conservative”, and either Gov. Tom Vilsack, of Iowa, another “moderate populist conservative”, or (more iffy) Gov. Bill Richardson, of New Mexico, a “moderate liberal populist”, for Vice President.

To get a better sense of the technocratic Gov. Warner — who, by the way, is limited to one term by law in Virginia and thus will be out by the end of this year (although there is serious talk of his running for the senate, which if he won would probably allow him to gain some foreign policy experience, without diminishing his credentials as an executive) — I heartily recommend following the links cited above, particularly to the piece “Mark Warner, Democratic Contender” by Howard Fineman, which recently appeared in Newsweek, as well as reading the text of the speech Gov. Warner gave two years ago entitled “Why I am a Democrat.”

Love ’em or hate ’em — and as a “progressive”, I of course have some significant issues with any “moderates” — these are the Democrats who, by the best assertions I can devise, are “most likely to succeed” — in getting us back into the “bully pulpit” of the White House, from which we may then again shape the all-important national debate.

Doug Drenkow

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