Democrats' Chances in 2004 Tied to the Economy

September 17, 2002

Setting aside unforeseeable factors that may arise from the war on terrorism, the Democrats chances for victory in the 2004 presidential election are tied to the national economic condition according to Ronald Klain, former chief of staff to Al Gore.

Now a partner with O'Melveny and Myers in Washington, D.C., Klain arrived for his Sept. 11 talk to the Virginia Law Democrats fresh from an appearance before the Virginia Supreme Court, where he argued on behalf of Democrats that the state's plan for redrawing its election districts was unduly race-conscious.

A Democratic insider, Klain was also General Counsel for Gore's Florida vote recount committee. He was associate counsel for the Clinton/Gore transition team and served as chief of staff to Janet Reno as attorney general and next to Tom Daschle, senator from South Dakota.

"I'm very optimistic about beating Bush because of our field of potential candidates: [Al] Gore, [Joseph] Lieberman, [Thomas] Daschle, [Richard] Gephardt, [John] Kerry and John Edwards [of North Carolina]," Klain said. "That's a dazzling array of candidates.

"None of the candidates is perfect. Each has certain political weaknesses. But I don't see a dark horse getting through the field. [California governor] Gray Davis could be such a candidate, assuming he wins re-election, but it's hard to see how anyone could upset Gore, Lieberman, Gephardt or Daschle. If Gore doesn't run, Gephardt is a very strong candidate because he's run before and in presidential campaigns that's very important." Lieberman has good name recognition, Daschle has the credibility to "move to the center," Klain said, and Kerry and Edwards, while they have assets, "do not have the national networks they would need to contend." Edwards, he said, will have to "go around the track a few more times before he is ready to run in a race. It is very, very hard to run for president." He predicted that campaign issues will draw on the model of Virginia Governor Mark Warner in selling progressivist positions. Warner's pro-gun control position did not go so far as to alienate hunters and sportsmen, for example.

Klain predicted that New York Senator Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic presidential candidate in 2008.

"There is a lack of a serious domestic agenda in the Bush Administration. Presidential campaigns turn on domestic affairs and the issue array overwhelmingly favors the Democrats."

Klain also saw hope for Democrats in the prospect that the key "battleground" states of Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania will have Democrat governors and their political structures in place to support the party's candidate in 2004. "Governorships are the most important offices in supporting presidential campaigns."

Klain said he had heard rumors on Capitol Hill that Republicans are considering nominating National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice as Bush's next vice-presidential running mate. "Republican efforts to add blacks and women to attract such votes are systematic failures," he said. "That won't be convincing to blacks. It doesn't change who Bush is and that's who they are being asked to vote for."

Asked about what he might wish the Gore campaign had done differently, Klain said, "When you lose by 537 votes — what? Was it because he didn't pet a dog once? It comes down to very small things. It's very hard to do this exercise. But I think on the strategic level we had a problem in the fall in not framing issues in the terms they should be framed in. We failed to say to voters what the fundamental nature of the choice was."

Should the campaign have been more or less populist in tone? "Gore won six-to-one if the voter decided on the basis of economic issues and lost six-to-one if the voter decided on the basis of social and cultural issues," Klain answered. "We failed to persuade voters that economics should be the basis of their decision. Instead, an historically very large proportion of voters made their choice over cultural issues."

He said recent corporate scandals are helping reinforce the idea that the Democratic Party is on the side of the middle class. In the next campaign, "the question to voters will be, which party is on your side economically?"

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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