Hillary Clinton and John Edwards stepped in it recently when, unaware that a microphone was on, they were seemingly caught conspiring to limit the number of candidates allowed to participate in the 42,000 or so remaining Democratic debates and forums.
Much of the heat they took was deserved. After all, crowded presidential fields are hardly a new phenomenon, and history has shown that hopeless long shots are quite capable of making valuable contributions to the process even when they aren’t capable of winning. (Just ask Bob Dole, whose front-running GOP campaign in 1988 was sabotaged in New Hampshire by the hapless Pierre du Pont.)
But that doesn’t mean that Mr. Edwards and Mrs. Clinton weren’t on to something. Sure, every one of the eight Democratic candidates has the right to run for President. But not all of them have a good reason to.
Take Chris Dodd. (Please!)
Obviously, the Connecticut senator’s candidacy is doomed—he fails to register in national polls and, even after he dumped cash into some pricey television ads in Iowa, rare is the poll that has him breaking 2 percent in the lead-off caucus state. But that alone is not a crime.
He can’t win, won’t make anyone’s V.P. shortlist, isn’t angling for a cabinet spot and is too risk-averse to take any shots at his rivals that might at least toughen them up for the fall. Nor is he using his candidacy to promote some particular issue or cause that would otherwise be ignored, the way, for instance, that Paul Tsongas put the federal deficit on the map in 1992. As best as anyone can tell, Mr. Dodd would like to be the Senate majority leader—but that job might not be available for years, and anyway, it is best pursued in the Senate cloakroom, and not on the hustings in Council Bluffs.
He does complain, though, and in a very predictable way—about the media’s “horse race” fixation and the tendency of debate moderators to ignore him. But that’s too easy. No matter how inept or unfair the media might be, Mr. Dodd has had ample opportunity to demonstrate that there is at least some appetite for his candidacy among the party’s faithful. And he hasn’t even caught Dennis Kucinich. The only constituency he has found resonance with are the lobbyists who have bankrolled his campaign after he decided to leverage his Senate committee chairmanship for cash.
There are several obvious reasons why Mr. Dodd has not connected with the Democratic electorate. Chief among them is that he looks and talks like the 27-year Senate veteran that he is. When he is called on at debates, he invariably cites all sorts of legislation he has authored or cosponsored or simply voted for, oblivious to the fact that he’s running for an executive post and not a legislative one. Nothing he says is disagreeable to the average Democratic palate, but that doesn’t mean the party faithful see him as their national face for 2008.
His campaign also feels as if it’s being run in the past tense. Mr. Dodd passed up chances to run for the White House when he was a fresher face, but now insists that voters will turn to him because of his experience — despite the fact that every bit of modern political history argues against that notion. (Remember Richard Lugar?) Besides, other candidates—Hillary and Joe Biden, for instance—can match him in the experience department.
On top of that, he brings no new ideas or bold proposals to the Democratic race, nothing that might move the party in a fundamentally new direction. Contrast that with, say, Mr. Biden, who is just as doomed as Mr. Dodd but who speaks with authority on foreign affairs and the war in Iraq, making him a valuable voice for the party.
In addition to advancing his Iraq philosophy, Mr. Biden is seeking—and, as he racks up favorable reviews of his debate performances, earning—redemption after the caricature of him as a blowhard reached critical mass earlier this year. His surprising performance as a candidate could very conceivably net him the job of secretary of state in a Hillary Clinton administration.
Bill Richardson, with his résumé and personal story, is at least on the move in some early state polls, and even if he comes up short of the nomination, he remains a potential V.P. pick. And it even makes sense, on some level, that Mike Gravel, who might otherwise be in a retirement home and who seems to be having the time of his life, and Mr. Kucinich, who’s simply happy for the TV time, are still in the mix.
But Chris Dodd has simply shown that as a presidential candidate, he’s not a bad senator. Which proves, if anything, that John Edwards and Hillary Clinton may have had a point.