History Lessons

It's almost the new year, which means that the pre-primary presidential campaign is just about over and that the real race to the White House is set to begin. But before we bid adieu to 2003, let's look back at some of the lessons we've learned from the 2004 Democratic contenders.

The first is that the Washington establishment does not a presidential candidate make. Early this year, John Kerry was the presumed front-runner because the party's leaders in Washington thought, and the conventional wisdom held, that he had the best chance of winning. But that didn't take into consideration what the Democratic base actually believed. When voters entered the picture, Howard Dean emerged as the leading candidate. Now, Kerry has had to mortgage his home to lend his campaign money to get through the New Hampshire primary, which he was once a lock to win. Keep in mind, too, that six of the 10 Democratic candidates (including onetime hopeful Bob Graham) now serve in Congress, and that only three House or Senate members have gone directly from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other. There's a reason why anti-Washington rhetoric resonates in presidential politics.

Another lesson from the Kerry campaign is that endorsements don't necessarily matter. Kerry, like other members of Congress running for the Oval Office, has promoted the backing he's received from other politicians, including Jeanne Shaheen, the former New Hampshire governor, and Gary Hart, the two-time Democratic presidential hopeful. The problem is that voters don't base their decisions at the ballot box on who's endorsed whom. Hart said as much during his phone call with reporters to announce his support of Kerry.

If you need further proof, look at Al Gore's endorsement of Dean. It ended up breathing life, for a few days at least, into the flagging campaign of Joe Lieberman, because he was able to milk Gore's perceived lack of loyalty. While Gore has shown he plans to continue helping out the Dean campaign -- they're doing a conference call Dec. 30 for Dean house parties -- other politicians continue to split their endorsements among the crowded field. Just this weekend, Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) became the 18th member of Congress to endorse Wesley Clark. In the end, because the field is so big, such endorsements won't mean much, so candidates who rely on them heavily are likely to be disappointed.

Also, Kerry's campaign should teach other candidates that if you're lucky enough to have the lead in a race, don't sit on it. And, as Dick Gephardt should know, if you've enjoyed the support of powerful allies in the past (such as labor unions), don't assume that they're going to line up behind you in the future. (There's a lesson here for Democrats and the AARP based on the Medicare bill, too -- but I digress.) You have to earn a voter's support every time you run.

Other candidates have offered useful lessons, too. John Edwards' 2004 campaign reads like a playbook from Bill Clinton's 1992 bid. Clinton attacked the upper-crust policies of a first-term president named Bush, espoused a populist theme, wrote position papers on issues, was a charming southerner and hailed from a working-class background. The problem is, the things voters wanted in 1992 aren't the same things they want now because the world is, quite literally, a different place. Similarly, there aren't enough voters who are still mad about the 2000 election to send Lieberman to the White House.

Edwards also proved that money is not always the mother's milk of politics. Remember the first three months of this year, when Edwards actually led the Democratic pack in fund raising? His strategy was to raise money early so he could spend it later on television ads that would introduce him to a larger group of voters than he could reach by attending meet-and-greets in Iowa and other early states. But money can't buy you love -- or votes. Instead, future candidates would be wise to follow the Dean model, which I liken to Field of Dreams: If you build a good campaign, money will come.

Another lesson from the Dean campaign is to organize early and often. It's never too soon to start building grass-roots support, especially in a crowded presidential field. It's even better if you can do it under the media radar. Unlike Kerry or Edwards, who were hyped in magazine profiles early on, Dean didn't get a surge in press attention until late summer -- when more voters started to tune in.

As the 2004 race begins in earnest, candidates should keep in mind a couple of other thoughts. Be consistent. Voters like a leader who is confident about what he believes in. This applies to both Kerry on the Iraq War and Dean as he straddles the liberal-centrist line. And don't help the Republicans do your dirty work. While the campaigns have launched zingers at one another -- such as Gephardt's fake letter from President Bush to Santa Claus, asking that Dean be the Democratic nominee -- none has been fatal to a campaign, and none has reached the level of nastiness displayed by Gore in 1988, when he originated the Willie Horton attack against Michael Dukakis. Republicans are good enough at making trouble for Democrats. It's not worth prolonging a sagging campaign by a few days or weeks if it means that the eventual nominee's campaign is going to get dinged beyond repair.

So as Democrats prepare for 2004, they would do well to keep all of these lessons in mind. Dean, as the perceived front-runner, must guard against being too comfortable with his lead in the polls by continuing to reach out to the supporters he has as well as the ones he wants to attract in the coming weeks. (This is especially true if he wins the nomination and seeks the endorsement of voters who backed other Democratic candidates.) And while he hasn't been popular so far among much of the Washington establishment, its members will line up behind him should he win the nomination. If Dean is going to beat Bush, he must avoid repeating the mistakes his competitors made. Preaching an anti-Washington (read anti-Bush) line and generating support from all segments of the party -- voters and party leaders, liberals and moderates -- would give Dean the best chance of beating Bush next fall. And that would make 2004 a very happy year indeed for Democrats.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.