Jewish World Review Jan. 22, 2004 / 28 Teves 5764

Paul Greenberg

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The campaign to date | Want a preview of the Republican presidential campaign come fall? Just listen to what all the prospective Democratic nominees have been saying about each other.

Have you ever heard tell of such a motley crew of hypocrites, losers and scoundrels in general? Who's writing these candidates' sound bites - Karl Rove?

But never fear. Once the Dems stop attacking each other and settle on a single presidential candidate, the greatest conversion you've ever seen outside a tent meeting will take place right on schedule, and all these squabbling contenders will unite behind the winner, and discover that he's the saintliest figure since . . . the party's last presidential nominee.

It's called a two-party system. The whole spectrum of opinion is eventually condensed into two opposing camps, usually filtering out the strangest candidates in the course of uniting behind the strongest one with the broadest appeal.

The process doesn't always work that way - see Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern eight years later - but it usually does. It'll be interesting to see if Howard Dean is able to defy the conventional pattern, or whether he turns conventional himself. Funny things happen on the way to a national convention. Like not turning out to be the nominee.

So do expected things. Carol Moseley Braun has already dropped out of the Democratic race in favor of Howard Dean, having never really dropped in, to judge by her standings in the polls.

Her departure confirms suspicions that she was never really running for president but for a Cabinet post in a Dean administration. Dennis Kucinich should follow shortly, perhaps in favor of everybody's friend John Edwards. Nothing would so become Mr. Kucinich's campaign at this point as his ending it.

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A wide-open presidential race is an invitation to every has-been, also-ran, never-was and wannabe in the party to angle for preferment by running for president, but only nominally. Or just to reap a ton of publicity. See Al Sharpton, race hustler extraordinaire. He makes Jesse Jackson look like yesterday's act.

Much the same, familiar process would be under way in Republican ranks if the GOP were the party out of power and riven by a wide-open contest for the presidential nomination.

That's how a two-party system works and, whatever its shortcomings, it beats the kind of personality cults, multi-faction politics and general confusion that reigns in other, more exotic venues - like France, Louisiana and California recalls.

Illogical, undemocratic and occasionally erratic as the Electoral College is, it makes sense. And it makes for stability. At least if we can get a straight count out of Florida this time. Not to mention curious redoubts like South Texas and Cook County, Illinois.

It's assuring to note that, even in these post-September 11th times, some things haven't changed. Some of the wilder charges against George W. Bush bring to mind what Republican isolationists were saying about FDR after December 7, 1941.

Just listen to Ted Kennedy and Wes Clark explain how this administration started cooking up this war in Iraq from the moment it took office. The way FDR planned Pearl Harbor, a still popular theory among certain zanies.

General/Candidate Clark is a kind of two-party system himself, having sounded like both a Republican and Democrat in a few short years. Nor is it always clear what he is now, at least according to Howard Dean, who's called the general the worst name in the Democratic book: Republican.

That's not quite fair. The general isn't a Republican or, for that matter, a Democrat so much as ambitious. Although his critics might use a different term: opportunist.

As if to make up for being soft on Saddam Hussein, General Clark is now going after an American ally, or at least ally of convenience: Pakistan's General Musharraf. (Is Wes Clark running for president or bull in the diplomatic china shop?)

Meanwhile, Howard Dean sounds like he's prepared to attack North Korea to balance his dovishness in Iraq. For these candidates, any regime may do as a target so long as it isn't the one this administration has just changed: Saddam Hussein's.

Why do I have this idea that, if Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice and Co. had decided to go after Pakistan or North Korea instead of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Baath in Iraq, the Wesley Clarks and Howard Deans would be jumping up and down and warning that Iraq was the real danger?

It's called opposition for opposition's sake. It's the way the system works: The duty of an opposition is to oppose, isn't it?

It can all be fun to watch if you don't take it too seriously too early. Iowa was just the warm-up, and New Hampshire is only the overture. This motley orchestra is still testing its instruments, which may explain why the air is filled with off-key notes.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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