Gloomy Predictions Sound Very Familiar

The Democratic front-runner’s rivals in the New Hampshire primary insist that his flaws will render him “unelectable” in November. “Unelectable,” warns the junior Senator from neighboring Massachusetts. “Unelectable,” warns a former governor of one of the nation’s biggest states. “Unelectable,” warns the Democratic Senator from Iowa, seconded by his colleague from Nebraska.

This candidate has won a significant following among party activists and likely Democratic voters. He has raised the largest amount of money, organized the best field operation and has more endorsements than any other candidate. But the wise and knowing insist that none of that could possibly matter come November. “Unelectable,” repeats the political press corps, picking up the mantra.

After reading and hearing “unelectable” for weeks and months, insiders who want to be quoted know what they must say. A top Democratic consultant describes the leading candidate as almost fatally gaffe-prone when responding to negative stories. “It’s not so much the thing he did that was so bad,” the consultant explains, “but how he handles it, and people remember how he handles it.” Another top Democratic consultant concurs gloomily: “The doubts already exist and they’re becoming harder to dispel.”

And a third top Democratic consultant hints that disaster is looming: “The negatives are forming on him like a political stalactite, drop by drop. The halls of Congress are filled with Democrats wringing their hands over their prospective nominee.”

The former Democratic Mayor of New York describes his party’s leading candidate as “so flawed” that he has “no possibility of … defeating President Bush.”

They must be talking about Howard Dean.

Actually, all those remarks were uttered about Bill Clinton in the spring of 1992, only months before he overcame a 20-point deficit to defeat George Herbert Walker Bush. In 2004, the same people-some forthrightly quoted by name, others merely by occupation-are saying many of the same things about the former Vermont Governor that they once said about Mr. Clinton in 1992.

And if they aren’t always precisely the same people, they’re the same sorts of people: rival candidates, disgruntled consultants, political-science professors and, above all, pundits. Anybody can make such predictions quite safely now; nobody will be held accountable if proved wrong. The certified geniuses who said Bill Clinton could never win were still considered geniuses on the day of his inauguration (when, no doubt, they had many important things to say about his Presidency’s prospects).

In making confident predictions of this kind, it is important to forget how wrong the last few batches turned out to be. Otherwise, the professional soothsayers might be more inclined toward respectful silence, or at least caution.

Is it possible for Dr. Dean to win? Nobody can be certain at this moment that he will even win the Democratic nomination, although the pundits also say they have determined the primary season’s outcome before any votes are cast. Challenging a lavishly financed incumbent is always a play against the odds.

Isn’t 2004 completely different from 1992, when Pat Buchanan campaigned against the President in the Republican primaries and Ross Perot ran as an independent candidate in the general election? That is true by definition, just as each election year can accurately be said to differ from every other. What will make this year “different” is yet to be revealed.

Isn’t Dr. Dean a flawed candidate? He surely must be, although a politician who is manifestly flawed-including the incumbent-quite often achieves high national office.

And while Dr. Dean has languished well behind the President in many polls, he isn’t necessarily doing worse than Mr. Clinton did in the early soundings of 1992. In fact, certain surveys show him doing considerably better. A poll taken by CNN and Time magazine between Dec. 30 and Jan. 1 found that when Dr. Dean was matched against Mr. Bush, the latter was ahead by 51 to 46. (Even the certified geniuses probably know that’s only five points, or almost equal to the poll’s four-point margin of error.) If accurate, those numbers place Dr. Dean well within striking distance.

Still, while nobody can yet be sure what will happen on Election Day, there could be a few individuals with access to higher sources. Among those who currently claim such ultimate knowledge is Pat Robertson. After several days spent in prayer, the millionaire preacher told his TV audience on Jan. 2 he had learned that “George Bush is going to win in a walk. I really believe I’m hearing from the Lord it’s going to be like a blowout election in 2004. It’s shaping up that way.”

Of course, the Lord usually whispers to the reverend that the Republicans are going to win big. And the Lord has been known to play a practical joke on him from time to time. After all, didn’t the Lord tell Mr. Robertson that he should run for President in 1988?