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What we saw and missed in 2003 politics

The political surprises of 2003 were often the result of things reporters and pundits already knew and failed to appreciate.'s Tom Curry looks back at the unexpected political news of 2003 and its portents for 2004.
Who knew a year ago that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean would ride a small horde of individual donors to front-runner status in the race for the Democratic nomination?Jason Reed / Reuters file
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On New Year’s Eve 2002, who would have expected that a little-known Vermont governor named Howard Dean would become the Democratic presidential front-runner on the strength of 200,000 individual donors? Probably no one, not even Dean.

The questions for the New Year are: Will Dean keep a steady hand on his candidacy, and will his vaunted grass-roots organization turn out the voters in the primaries?

Likewise, who’d have thought that President Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist could take the Medicare issue off the table for 2004 by enacting a new prescription drug benefit?

But is the issue truly off the table, or will elderly voters be so flummoxed by the benefit that they take out their frustration on Bush by voting for his Democratic opponent?

What we failed to appreciate
The surprises of 2003 were often the result of things reporters and pundits already knew and failed to appreciate.

For instance, the Howard Dean I first interviewed in October of 2002 had all the potential to make him the Democratic front-runner.

His rivals were trapped in the grandiose verbiage of Senate debates, but Dean was pugnacious, crisp and unapologetic.

As “financial catalyst” Jo-Ellen Thornton told me in October 2000 after hearing Dean speak to a small group in Denver, “I like his intentionality,” which is New Age-speak for: “He’s dead-set on beating Bush, and he won’t let anything stand in his way.”

For each of this year’s surprises, there was the “what-we-already-knew-and-didn’t-appreciate” factor:

Surprise: The vortex of Dean’s candidacy swallowed up much of the energy and money among Democratic activists and primary voters.

  • What we knew and didn’t appreciate: The Iraq war had caused the worst foreign policy split in the Democratic Party in 35 years. Not since Sen. Eugene McCarthy took on President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War had Democrats fought as bitterly with each other over foreign policy.

Although Dean himself supported a proposed Iraq resolution that would have authorized Bush to attack Iraq just as did the one that Congress ultimately passed, he quickly appreciated the potency of the Iraq issue.

Attacking his fellow Democrats’ stands on Iraq became the signature of his campaign, as he shouted, “What I want to know is what in the world so many Democrats are doing supporting the president’s unilateral intervention in Iraq!” 

Surprise: Not sure how seriously to take him in February and March of 2003, Dean’s rivals only belatedly began to attack him. As of the week before Christmas, none had yet figured out how to sustain an unrelenting anti-Dean strategy.

To be sure, Dean’s rivals are starting to include more caustic lines in their speeches and press briefings.

Reacting to Dean’s statement Monday that if he were president, he would have launched an attack on Iraq “had the United Nations given us permission and asked us to be part of a multilateral force,” Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry accused Dean of proposing “a ‘Simon Says’ foreign policy where America only moves if others move first.”

But Dean’s poll numbers have either continued rising or stayed steady, putting him ahead of the pack in Iowa and New Hampshire, sites of the first two contests.

  • What we knew and didn’t appreciate: The Democratic field is so crowded that it took a while for Dean’s rivals and the news media to comprehend that he’d rewritten the rules on fund-raising and was building an extensive grass-roots organization.

Surprise: No Democratic presidential contender has been better than Dean at diagnosing and treating the “battered Democrat” syndrome.

After their party's harrowing defeats in the 2000 and 2002 elections, rank-and-file Democrats were angry and dispirited. Dean not only felt their pain, he promised to cure it. “If you make me the Democratic nominee, I’ll make you proud to be Democrats again,” he told his audiences.

  • What we knew and didn’t appreciate: While most of the other Democratic contenders serve in the House or Senate and had to spend some of their time back in Washington, Dean, starting in the summer of 2002, spent nearly every day on the road talking to rank-and-file Democrats in Iowa, New Hampshire and other states. He had a better diagnostic feel for the psyche of the party activists who vote in primaries than his rivals did.

Surprise: None of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court retired in 2003.

Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, 83, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist, 79, are now among the longest-serving justices in the court’s history, with Rehnquist serving for 32 years and Stevens in his 28th.

  • What we knew and didn’t appreciate: Supreme Court justices are politicians, too, or at least they are acutely conscious of the political consequences of their actions.

We may never know what retirement calculations Stevens and Rehnquist went through this year, but in the past a desire for political stability has affected justices’ decisions about when to retire.

Last summer’s decisions striking down state sodomy laws and upholding public universities’ policies of giving racial and ethnic preferences to applicants showed that five justices — Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer — are the center of gravity on the court right now, to the distress of conservatives.

Speaking of the unexpected — although by now it has become the familiar fact of Supreme Court politics — who'd have expected a trio of Republican presidential nominees (O'Connor, Stevens and Souter) to anchor the court's liberal-to-moderate majority?

Wesley Clark: no surprise
It would be a mistake to portray 2003 simply as a year of one surprise piled upon another. Some developments were the expected result of a long build-up. Case in point: the candidacy of retired Gen. Wesley Clark.

For months Clark admirers prepared the ground for a Clark bid for the Democratic nomination.

Clark is an unorthodox and potentially attractive contender in a time of war. The Democrats have not nominated a retired general as their presidential candidate since Civil War veteran Winfield Scott Hancock in 1880.

Once he declared his candidacy, Clark did not surprise some Washington strategists. They had expected him to make a few costly rookie mistakes — and he did.

The surprise for 2004 would be if Clark were to defy the odds, defeat Dean in key primaries and win the nomination. It couldn’t happen, you say? Of course, neither could the Dean juggernaut, according to the New Year’s Eve prophets of 2002.