The head of the pack is a dangerous place for a Democrat to be. Democrats excel in cannibalizing their front-runners. Just ask those who were knocked out in the primary season (Lyndon Johnson, Ed Muskie and Howard Dean) or those who limped from the ring after 15 rounds (Walter Mondale and Al Gore). ~Thomas Edsall, The New York Times
But “Democrats” didn’t cannibalise these so-called front-runners–Vietnam and voters did. Johnson dropped out because the war had become such a massive liability that he could not campaign as a war president. Muskie lost his momentum for rather more bizarre reasons (nobody likes a crybaby, or so the conventional wisdom held). The idea that Dean was ever anything other than an insurgent is funny in itself (how quickly we forget!), but nobody else exactly tore Dean down–he failed to build up enough support to win any of the early contests and so failed to build any greater momentum. Kerry had been considered, for what reason I will never fully understand, the most formidable in the field, and in the end primary voters went for him over Dean. The accepted establishment insider candidate won–surprise, surprise! A whole field of Democrats desperately wanted to “cannibalise” Kerry (and I bet they wish they had succeeded), but they were unable to do so. The myth of the wildly unpredictable and fractious Democrats only goes so far. In most years, they are as ploddingly predictable as the GOP. It flatters the Democrats’ sense of themselves as the party of “the people” to think that their contests are more responsive to a diverse electorate, but 1984 is probably just about the lone modern exception to fairly boring contests that were settled early in the election year.
There were heady days in late 2003 and early 2004 when those of us looking high and low for someone to beat Bush were enthusiastic (almost certainly too enthusiastic) about the crazy doctor’s chances because he was actually, truly against the Iraq war. He didn’t think it should be fought better or that we should, God forbid, send more Americans to fight in Iraq, but that it was a tremendously bad policy and needed to be ended. What a refreshing thing that was to hear! Of course, he had literally nothing else to say, and then he got a bit excited after one of his primary losses and gave that unfortunate speech. The speech was never as bad as the media made it out to be, but what the media created (and the Dean boomlet was heavily media-driven) it can and will also destroy.
Then there is this notion that Mondale and Gore emerged only after long and “bruising” (this is the word that journalists always use) primary battles. This has some real truth in Mondale’s case, where he had two fairly strong competitors who picked off a number of important states going into the spring, but with Gore and Bradley it was really all over by February (Gore was running against Bill Bradley, after all, so how could it have been any different?). Bradley kept hanging around for some time after New Hampshire, but there was never much doubt that the nomination was Gore’s once Bradley failed to win there. If 2000 was a 15-round slugfest (weren’t boxing matches only 12 rounds long by that time?), I wonder what Edsall would liken a genuinely competitive fight for a nomination to.