A weekly window on the American political scene hosted by the Monitor's politics editors.

For clues about 2020 campaign, look back to 2004

Why We Wrote This

The 2004 campaign cycle was the last time Democrats were faced with trying to oust a Republican president. The way voters are evaluating their candidates feels strikingly similar.

John Gress/Reuters/File
Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry gestures toward President George W. Bush while answering a question during the town hall format debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, October 8, 2004.

Dear reader:

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the 2004 campaign – and all the ways in which the current cycle resembles it.

In 2003, Democrats were intent on ousting an incumbent Republican who had previously lost the popular vote, and whom many labeled one of the worst presidents in history. Liberals accused President George W. Bush of being dumb and dishonest , having taken the nation into a controversial war in Iraq under false pretenses.

They also worried (correctly, as it turned out) that they might not be able to beat him. The 2004 Democratic primary was highly focused on “electability,” as the party debated which of its candidates would be strongest against President Bush. Should they nominate a liberal antiwar outsider who fired up young people and electrified the base? Or go with an establishment type whose résumé seemed less easy to demonize?

In the end, Democrats went with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, whose record of military service and vote in favor of the Iraq War made him seem to many the safest pick. And they lost.

The analogy isn’t exact, of course. President Donald Trump has never enjoyed the kind of approval ratings that President Bush saw in the wake of 9/11 – and Democrats’ animosity toward him makes the “Bush hatred” of the early 2000s look positively genial by comparison.

 Still, 2004 might offer some lessons when it comes to the current campaign. For one thing, it suggests the outcome in Iowa will be crucial. Senator Kerry did not actually lead in the polls at this point in the cycle – but his win in Iowa clearly shaped the race from that point on. When a party is searching for an “electable” candidate, the best way to meet that criteria is often by winning.

At the same time, as 2004 made clear, “electability” is a slippery thing. Aspects of Senator Kerry’s candidacy that were presumed to be strengths during the primary were turned into weaknesses over the course of the general election (remember the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth?).

Some progressives today have been pointing to the 2004 campaign as evidence that timidity in politics doesn’t work. Yet it’s also worth remembering that the 2004 election was, in the end, relatively close. And it’s entirely possible that a more liberal candidate like Vermont Gov. Howard Dean would have lost in a landslide – along the lines of another campaign cycle that some analysts have been citing of late: 1972.

Let us know what you’re thinking at csmpolitics@csmonitor.com.

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