Jewish World Review Feb. 4, 2003 / 2 Adar I, 5763

Zev Chafets

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McGovern's children | Gary Hart is considering adding his name to the list of Democratic candidates for the presidency.

You probably remember Hart, if you remember him at all, as the arrogant young senator from Colorado who lost his bid for the 1988 nomination by getting caught with his pants down.

But Hart deserves a more enduring place in Democratic history as the campaign manager and architect of George McGovern's 1972 nomination.

It was Hart's insight that McGovern could capture the party with a Vietnam policy triangulated roughly between the White House and the Viet Cong. But he miscalculated the effect of such geometry on the national electorate. His candidate lost (to Richard Nixon!) in one of the biggest debacles in the history of American politics.

Now Hart is back, after a long, monastic exile. He appears just as America is heading into another war. And although it's hard to take his candidacy seriously, he may be the most influential figure in the race.

Recently, the Democratic-affiliated group Democracy Corps asked this question in a public opinion survey: Which party do you trust more to keep the nation strong? Fifty percent of Americans picked the Republicans; only 22% chose the Democrats.

In a related question, 47% said they thought the Republicans were better able to keep America safe. The Democrats scored 16%.

In large measure, the Democrats have Hart and his old boss McGovern to thank for these results.

A little history: In the bad old days before 1972, when the Democratic national bosses picked the candidates, they chose men like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy (although an occasional Adlai slipped in).

Then Hart and McGovern "democratized" the nominating process. Ever since, the party's grass-roots activist wing has been crucial in picking the standard-bearer, and it has produced quite a different Democratic Rushmore: Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Carter won in 1976 because voters wanted to punish the Republicans for Watergate, then lost to Reagan in 1980. Clinton got elected in 1992 - in peacetime, with 43% of the popular vote - mostly on sex appeal and the fact that Ross Perot's third-party candidacy drained Republican support.

But the others lost because of this paradox: Candidates liberal enough to win Democratic primaries and caucuses are usually too liberal to get elected President.

That is the problem the Democrats now face. On issues of American power, the party's base is to the left of French President Jacques Chirac, which works only if the Democratic nominee can run in France.

There are currently six announced Democratic candidates, although only three - Sens. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and John Kerry of Massachusetts and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri - can be taken seriously in wartime.

Al Sharpton, whose views on national security are probably most in sync with the Democratic hard core, has Tawana Brawley as a permanent running mate. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and North Carolina freshman Sen. John Edwards have between them less international experience than the average NBA coach. (I know, neither did President Bush in 2000, but he wasn't running in the middle of a national security crisis.)

Lieberman and Gephardt support the Bush policy on war, which puts them with a majority of Americans but at odds with hard-core party activists who believe that all war is bad but wars led by a Republican are evil.

John F. Kerry is the default favorite of the left-wing base. He voted for the war resolution on Iraq but is full of hints that he had his fingers crossed. Kerry doesn't want Bush "to rush to war" - more than four months after he himself voted for it. There is a word for this: equivocation.

Consistency isn't Kerry's thing. He has, after all, made a career out of being a proud Vietnam war hero who came home and threw away his medals. But the World Trade Center wasn't the Gulf of Tonkin. This is a real war, and wartime candidates are judged beyond all else by their character. Kerry's strategy of flirting with left-wing anti-warriors during primary season while hedging to maintain warrior credibility for November 2004 if the fighting goes well is transparently sleazy.

Nor is Kerry the only senior Democrat to want it both ways. This week in the Senate, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who has toyed with the idea of running for the nomination, hectored administration officials for failing to make a case for the war while reminding the audience in TV land that he voted for the damn thing.

The coming election is going to force the Democratic Party to make a decision. If it wants to be trusted again on national security, it needs to pick a candidate who supports America's right to go to war - with or without UN approval - without ideological ifs or partisan buts. Or it can choose somebody, like Dodd or Kerry, who just isn't sure what's right.

In which case the Democrats might as well go ahead and nominate Hart and let him finish in 2004 what he and McGovern began in 1972.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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