TOPICS > Politics

The Long Campaign

March 16, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, what history says about long presidential campaigns, like the one that has just begun. First, remarks delivered today by the two major candidates. Senator John Kerry, the Democrat, met with veterans in West Virginia. President Bush, the Republican, spoke to small business owners at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I hope you’re as optimistic as I am about the future of this country. The reason I am is because I know what we’ve overcome. We’ve overcome a lot. We’ve overcome a recession. We’ve overcome an attack on our country, an attack which, by the way, not only affected our spirit, it affected our economy.

They estimate over a million jobs were lost after the attacks of Sept. 11. We overcame that, those attacks, because of the resolve of the American people. The American people refused to be intimidated by cold-blooded killers. We refused then to be intimidated. We refuse now to ever be intimidated by cold-blooded killers.

And then we had a problem in our society in that we’ve had some people that were in positions of responsibility that didn’t tell the truth. You might remember the corporate scandals that affected the psychology of the country. The capitalist system requires trust. There was some citizenry that forgot what it meant to be a responsible citizen, and they didn’t tell the truth. But we passed tough laws, and I want to thank the people of Congress here who helped pass those laws.

It is now clear that we are not going to tolerate any dishonesty in the boardrooms of our country. People will be held to account and we overcame that. And then, as you know, I made a tough decision about keeping our word and about making this country secure and the world more peaceful. And we went to war. And I committed, along with other nations, brave sons and daughters of our respective countries to deal with a tyrant that refused to yield to the demands of the world. And now he sits in a jail cell and Iraq is free.

We marched to war, which affected the economy. And now we’re marching to peace. A free Iraq is going to help change the world. A free Afghanistan is changing the world. The world is becoming more peaceful. In other words, we’ve overcome a lot. ( Applause )

SEN. JOHN KERRY: The president is busy trying to blame everybody except his own administration taking responsibility for what’s happening in our economy. They say, “oh no, it was Silicon Valley that had a problem,” or, “it was 9/11 that created the problem,” or, “it was Bill Clinton who created the problem,” even though he left them with a $560 billion surplus. But he’s pushing it off on everybody else.

Well, just today, either today or yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office came out with a report; 94 percent of this deficit has been caused by George Bush overspending and by a tax cut we can’t afford. 94 percent of the problem is George Bush and his administration. (Applause)

Second issue where they haven’t leveled with the American people: They asked us to pass a Medicare prescription drug bill for seniors last year. They now tell us that that costs $135 billion more. But they wouldn’t tell us that at the time, even though they knew it and there was a person who wanted to tell the story, who was ready to testify to the Congress, and they threatened him and told him he couldn’t go out and do that at risk obviously of his job. There, they wouldn’t tell the American people the truth.

And just in the last few days, we have learned that the chief weapons inspector has publicly stated that this administration has misled America and the world with respect to what they said about the state of the weapons of mass destruction as they went through the process leading up to the war. Now ladies and gentleman, those are three major examples. They aren’t all of them, at all. But those are the economy, the health of Americans and the question of sending young men and women off to war. And on each and every one of them, this administration has yet to level with the American people and own up to what we deserve with respect to the truth. ( Applause )

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: With today’s Illinois primary, John Kerry expects to clinch his party’s nomination. But in fact, as we just saw, the general election battle has already been joined, a full eight months before election day, with vigorous on-the-stump campaigning and television ads from both Kerry and President Bush. Is there any precedent for such a long general election contest?

Some answers now from two NewsHour regulars and presidential historians, Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith, director of the Lincoln Library and Museum. Welcome back to you both. Michael, is there any precedent for a general election contest that’s engaged this early with this much intensity?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Intensity and early, no. Although four years ago, Al Gore and George Bush clinched the nomination at about this point in the campaign and it didn’t start out nicely. It began when Gore sent Bush an e-mail saying “congratulations, let’s both renounce soft money.” Bush replied with an e-mail saying, “no, thanks for the congratulations.” He said, “this Internet of yours is a wonderful invention,” referring to Gore’s claim to be a father of the Internet. So even then, it started off very badly.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that in terms of precedent here?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I’d say it started off even worse eight years ago. Remember they had front-loaded the Republican nominating process. Bob Dole sort of stumbled across the finish line in March only to find that he was broke. He was, he had agreed to abide by the federal spending limits. He had no money.

Basically, he was a sitting duck for the next three or four months while a lot of negative ads went on the air very effectively portraying him as a clone of Newt Gingrich. He finally, in desperation, as you remember, was driven to just change the subject to generate some free favorable publicity. He actually quit the United States Senate in an effort, a forlorn effort as it turned out, to reintroduce himself to the electorate.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s not really new to have nominees necessarily wrap up their party’s nomination this early or it has happened before.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Although not this early with the exception of four years ago. You know, Margaret, it used to be the case that you’d have a nomination campaign, usually lasted about six or seven months.

Usually went down to something like the California primary or New York in June, and even if a candidate locked up a nomination in June, as perhaps Jimmy Carter did in 1976, Carter still had to go to a convention and make sure that everyone who had lost to him was on the same side and make sure that he had a good convention. What’s extraordinary this time is that on both sides not only have Kerry and George Bush gotten these nominations, but they don’t have to worry about things like that.

MARGARET WARNER: Richard, Terry McAuliffe, the head of the DNC, arranged this front- loaded schedule on the he said over and over that he didn’t want the Democratic nominee — by the time he was selected — if the primary season went on too long that he would be either too beat up or too broke to really go up against President Bush. You gave one example already of Bob Dole clinching it early but being too broke. But was Terry McAuliffe right? Does history suggest that long primaries are necessarily bad for the eventual nominee and short primary seasons are necessarily good?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, national party chairmen, after all, are paid to worry about those things. Actually, there’s a lot of history to suggest to McAuliffe that he’s right. Michael mentioned Jimmy Carter in 1980 when he fended off the challenge from Ted Kennedy.

Four years earlier, Gerald Ford, the last convention that really was a suspenseful affair was in 1976 in Kansas City. It was by no means a sure thing going into that convention that President Ford, an incumbent, although appointed, had the delegates to defeat Ronald Reagan. There had been an intense, some would say savage, blood fighting, ideological bloodletting within the Republican Party. There is no doubt that Ford was seriously, probably permanently weakened as a candidate for the fall.

So you go back in ’64, Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller or George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey in 1972. It’s not hard to understand why party professionals, the party establishment including the money men would like to control this process as much as they can.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But, you know, we voters need a longer process, I think. I abhor the system we’ve got because it is so brief because, you know, we really have to learn about these guys. Most Americans knew very little about john Kerry before mid-January. A choice was made six or eight weeks later, as good or bad as he may be as a nominee.

The other thing is that people gain from these processes. You know, Richard was mentioning Gerald Ford, although it was a terrible experience running against Reagan and hurt him in other ways, Ford was a much more disciplined effective candidate because he had gone through that experience. Think about Al Gore. Had he had to really fight longer for that nomination four years ago, I think he would have been a better candidate in the fall.

MARGARET WARNER: Richard, there are examples of candidates who had long primary battles and it didn’t seem to hurt them.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: No. In fact, the classic campaign against which all others, at least in the modern era, are measured is 1960. It’s hard to believe John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy on January 2 of 1960.

There were 16 primaries that year. He targeted seven because he knew instinctively the only way he was going to win that party’s nomination was to take it away from the king makers who doubted that America was ready to elect a Catholic president. And so he focused on states like Wisconsin and, above all, West Virginia, a state that was 95 percent Protestant. By winning there, he demonstrated that he could, in fact, win.

You had two conventions, both in July. Everyone understood what the starting line was for the fall campaign. The Democratic candidate invariably appeared in Cadillac Square in Detroit, usually in the company of Walter Ruther of the United Auto Workers. There were the campaign debates that year. The point is, in 1960 you’re absolutely right, John F. Kennedy grew. I mean, the legend, the Kennedy legend predated his assassination. I mean, he really not only introduced himself to America that year, I think he won America’s heart as well as the presidency.

MARGARET WARNER: And I’m thinking also, Michael, let’s take 1980. Reagan versus the first Bush. I mean, that went almost all the way until June. Didn’t hurt Ronald Reagan.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Didn’t at all. In fact, it showed that Reagan had support in that party in a way that might not have otherwise and also by choosing Bush who had demonstrated that he was able to command the support of maybe 35 to 40 percent. That was an amazingly strong ticket because they represented the two factions of the Republican Party and it was very effective in the fall.

MARGARET WARNER: So they didn’t go to the convention bitterly divided as in some of the other examples you both have given.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That’s right. That’s why I hate this idea of these party chairmen so afraid of this long campaign. The cure for democracy is more democracy. We’re founded the idea that when these candidates fight with each other, you get better candidates and better governments.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Richard, history does have examples of when somebody sews up the nomination fairly early but then doesn’t do anything between then and the convention, that that can hurt him, are there not? I mean, I’m thinking your Dole example. What about Michael Dukakis in ’88?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, that’s true. Of course, Dukakis had kind of a continuing in some ways not a rebellion but something of an insurgency with Jesse Jackson. Certainly, it was more than a distraction. Richard Nixon, a lot of folks look at the 1960 campaign believe that he wasted the time before his party’s convention. But I also want to say I think Michael has a very good point in terms of the role of the party chairman.

There is also something very, very significant we haven’t mentioned and that is the risk of this strategy because the fact is, you can wind up buying a pig in a poke. You have been in some ways rushed to choose a candidate in either party on grounds of electability. Well, what does electability mean? It really doesn’t mean anything. And so now we’re in the next chapter, which is another kind of race, a race to be defined or to avoid being defined by your opponents.

MARGARET WARNER: Briefly Michael, one thing that is new about this is how quickly an incumbent president, President Bush, criticized John Kerry by name.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Very early on. At the other end of the spectrum, Ronald Reagan in ’84, I think, mentioned Walter Mondale in a debate because he had to.


MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But even more than that Richard Nixon in 1972, when he was accepting victory. The first time he mentioned George McGovern’s name was after the election had been won. I think what he said was, you know, you people who supported Senator McGovern should not get out of public life.

MARGARET WARNER: He finally deigned to say it.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He deigned to say his opponent’s name. Very different age from ours.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael, Richard, thank you both.