A German View of the Democratic Race

Yes, I’ve been “off-line” for a while, as my just-completed US trip went through its final, most-business-intensive phase. But, as of today, I’m back on-station in Amsterdam and prepared to plunge back fully into those national presses over here on this side of the water that I cover.

Remarkably, during the time that I was criss-crossing the US (from 19 January until yesterday) the Democrats have basically come up with their candidate to challenge George W. Bush in the fall for the presidency, demolishing one front-runner (Howard Dean, of course) and elevating another (John Kerry). Scanning the German press for coverage of this, Die Zeit does a particularly good job, all the more because this newspaper’s editors don’t let its status as a weekly get in the way of that coverage; there’s always the web-site, after all, to send an article to when it is timely and ready, even if the printing-presses are not, as with this article (“John Kerry Remains Favorite”), which appeared shortly after the conclusion of last Tuesday’s Democratic Party primaries in seven states.

TWO-DONKEY RACE

It’s interesting to get Die Zeit’s take on the Democratic situation (from correspondent Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff) in the wake of Tuesday’s primaries, the fullest slate of contests so far. According to Brockhoff, Tuesday’s results show that the struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination is likely to become a Dauerdrama – that is, a long, drawn-out drama. That’s because, although Massachusetts Senator John Kerry had the best results of all on Tuesday and gained the most delegates, Senator John Edwards is coming up fast and turning it into a two-man race – for the most part, at least. While a public opinion poll taken the day of those primaries reveals that a full 80% of Democrats would now be content with Kerry as their party’s standard-bearer, he still has a problem in appealing to the vital political center, as his defeats in South Carolina and Oklahoma supposedly show.

In contrast, Kleine-Brokhoff has Senator John Edwards as the anoited Challenger to the Front-Runner, appealing more to middle-of-the-road voters, as well as being “the new Kennedy, a man who gives the country back a feeling of unlimited possibilities.” However, Edwards has his own problem in turn, in the form of Wesley Clark, whose victory last Tuesday in the Oklahoma primary makes this still rather more than just a two-man race. And after all, General Clark is a Southerner too, and so shares much of Edward’s appeal on that score and with more-conservative voters.

DEAN AS “TRAGIC HERO”

No mention here of any of the other Democratic candidates. That’s why I happen to find Kleine-Brockhoff’s earlier article – Something’s Brewing There – written just after Kerry’s victory in the New Hampshire primary but before this week’s seven-state contests, a bit more appealing. You still won’t find any mention of Dennis Kucinich or Al Sharpton here, or even of Joe Lieberman. But at this stage the German reporter is still willing to devote space to Howard Dean, despite his New Hampshire loss, towards the end of the article. According to Kleine-Brockhoff, Dean is “the tragic hero of New Hamp-shire [sic]: he had been working the crowds here in the Granite State for two years, and seemed invincible there, before the Iowa caucuses result (and his “uncontrolled assertions, his outbreaks of temperament”) brought him down. Still, the German finds that Dean did not lose in New Hampshire as much as had been originally feared; faced with the challenge of recovering from Iowa’s result, Dean’s campaign made changes and fought back, among other things bringing in his wife as a “secret weapon.”

In any case, Kleine-Brockhoff writes, Dean has rendered his party a valuable service: he has “formed the party up against George Bush,” after it first seemed (namely after September 11, of course) that opposing the President in any way was simply going to be impossible. “In the meantime [Dean’s] competitors are starting to talk almost aggressively as he.”

Otherwise, the post-New Hampshire story for Die Zeit’s writer is much like the post-South Carolina-Missouri-Arizona-Delaware-etc. story: Kerry trying to appear presidential, as the “sure thing” candidate to take on George W. Bush, while John Edwards with his growing appeal (Kleine-Brockhoff again invokes the Kennedy name on his behalf here) seems a “rocket awaiting ignition.” Kerry now takes care to have so many veterans taking part at electioneering events on his behalf that they all seem to be more “veterans-shows” than Kerry events. Often the star turns out to be Jim Rassman, whom Kerry saved from certain death from falling overboat in a South Vietnamese river many decades ago. “[Rassman] knows of the Germans’ worries about Bush,” Kleine-Brockhoff writes, “and always answers [to German media correspondents such as Die Zeit’s man there], ‘Kerry is your hope – and ours.'”

NOT FOR SALE

The article also captures a good sense of New Hampshire’s unique brand of retail politics, in which courting and convincing voters up close and personal is so important; one elderly lady, when asked if she had decided yet for whom she intended to vote, replied “No, I haven’t seen all of the candidates yet.” And the German writer provides some welcoming reassurance by asserting that this “grass-roots democracy” shows that it’s not true that the White House is essentially up for sale each election cycle. Well, one George W. Bush also lost the New Hampshire primary back in 2000, and he had record-setting amounts of money to ultimately work with – and Kleine-Brockhoff does admit that, if the question of who a party’s candidate is going to be remains open beyond New Hampshire into the widespread primaries beyond, then organization – and money – do tend to become decisive. By his analysis, that’s what is happening for Democrats in 2004; remember, even in his later article of this week this observer claims to see that Dauerdrama shaping up.

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