Joe Conason's Journal

A new poll shows that in the matchups between Bush and the top-tier Democrats, all are within striking distance -- and Clark is actually a couple of points ahead.

By Salon Staff

Published September 22, 2003 3:55PM (EDT)

A watershed moment for Bush -- and Democrats
Carole Moseley Braun declared her intention to run for president today -- a soporific subject to which I will return in a moment.

First let's savor the real news, as reported in this new USAToday/Gallup/CNN Poll: George W. Bush is truly, seriously vulnerable to a challenge from the Democrats if they seriously and truly want to win. His approval ratings continue to plunge, his policies are unpopular, and his war no longer commands unquestioning support. He could lose to any of the top-tier Democrats, although he has reason to fear Wesley Clark most.

As for Clark, he seems to have emerged from that devastating "Mary, help" interview unscathed. After he said that he would "probably" have voted for the Iraq war resolution in order to spur a diplomatic solution, Clark underwent a ritual bashing by the press as a gaffe-prone, not-ready-for-primetime flip-flopper. While that story dominated the news cycle between Sept. 18 and Sept. 21, the Democrats polled by Gallup said that they prefer Clark to all his rivals by a significant margin.

That doesn't mean Clark will get a free ride in the future. He needs better preparation for dealing with the reporters who unfairly ruined Al Gore (some of whom are already covering him). If he's as smart as he's supposed to be, he will learn from that dismal experience about games played by the national press corps.

What the Gallup Poll does mean is that Democratic voters want to win -- and that they are more interested in Clark than in reporters' opinions of Clark. The other poll results explain why. Bush's approval rating is down to 50 percent, with his disapproval up to 47 -- his worst numbers, I believe, since September 2001. Moreover, in the matchups between Bush and the top-tier Democrats, all are within striking distance -- but Clark is actually a couple of points ahead of the president today.

Meanwhile, the unedifying spectacle of Democratic pseudo-candidacies continues. Exactly what is the purpose of the Braun campaign, except to offer the leaders of NOW an opportunity to embarrass their members? What is the aim of the Kucinich campaign, or the Sharpton campaign, other than to give these gentlemen a few more months of bemused media attention? For that matter, what is the point of the Graham campaign? The Gephardt and Edwards efforts are now at the edge of plausibility, too.

Before anyone starts writing a scolding e-mail, please be assured that I know all these people have a perfect right to run. This is America, where anyone can run for president -- or at least for governor of California.

But this is no time for protest or educational campaigns -- or vanity candidacies, which is what all of the under-10-percent no-hopers are. If any of these worthies believes that defeating Bush is important -- as they all earnestly profess -- then they will promote that objective best by stepping out of the limelight, shedding their circus costumes, and deciding which of the real candidates they prefer.

Hillary's choice
When Californians aren't talking about the recall or baseball, they talk about presidential politics -- and they sometimes ask a visiting New York journalist about the intentions of his home state's junior U.S. senator.

Possessing no special knowledge about Hillary Rodham Clinton's plans, I can't provide any insider perspectives like those that have allegedly surfaced in magazines, newspapers and TV talk shows over the past few weeks. Republican and other right-wing gossips, always eager to raise money from riled rubes, have been spreading stories like this one. In that quest they can count on the assistance of mainstream journalists who continue to share the right's obsession with the Clintons.

I assume that the former president just wants to torment and tease those people when he promotes the notion of his wife running for his old job next year. But if he is seriously trying to push her into that race, she should continue to ignore such bad advice.

The foundation of her campaign for the Senate three years ago was her commitment to serve a full term and not use her new state's Senate seat as a rest stop between presidential campaigns. No matter what her husband thinks, many New Yorkers who believed that promise when she made it will be sorely disappointed if she violates it now. My assumption is still that she is telling the truth when she says she has decided not to run for president now.

The former president's office issued a statement the other day acknowledging the finality of her decision. But irrepressible as he is, he will surely still feel an urge to talk her up as the presidential season begins.

Frankly, she hasn't accomplished anything that merits promotion to the nation's highest office. At this point she scarcely seems better prepared for that job than her fellow freshman John Edwards, of North Carolina, who is hardly prepared at all. In the Senate she has seemed cautious and somewhat deferential, as probably befits a celebrated newcomer.

She is doing a good job for New York, although without distinguishing herself yet on broader issues, as those who have held that seat before her did. She is exceptionally hardworking, smart and popular with Democratic voters, but she could still face a tough reelection campaign if someone like Rudolph Giuliani decides to challenge her.

So her enthused husband should probably stop talking about her presidential ambitions for a while (four years, at minimum). He isn't helping her, and he may be harming the candidates who are running.

This hectic life, Bay Area dispatch
On Monday, I will begin the day at "Mornings on 2," the popular news show that's broadcast by KTVU-TV from studios in Oakland, at around 8:30 PDT. Radio interviews today also include an interview at around noon Central time on WKZO-AM in Kalamazoo, Mich., and another at 1 p.m. Pacific time on KKIQ-FM in Contra Costa County. The evening's activities will begin at 7 (PDT), when I will be speaking and signing copies of "Big Lies" at Book Passage in Corte Madera, and will conclude with my return to "The Bernie Ward Show" on KGO-AM in San Francisco between 11 and midnight. On Tuesday morning I will appear at around 7:15 Pacific on KRON-TV in San Francisco, followed by an interview at 8 on the KPFA-FM morning show in Berkeley. By 7 p.m., I will be in San Diego, signing books and speaking at Current Affairs on University Avenue.
[4:30 p.m. PDT, Sept. 22, 2003]

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