The Candidates and the Issues

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In my U.S. News column this week, I took a look at presidential candidates' websites and analyzed their treatment of issues. It didn't take too long to read through the websites; what I found was, as I wrote in the column, "pretty thin gruel." In the online version of my column, we have provided a link to a list of the candidates' websites, so you can easily read what they have to say and make your own judgments on whether I've fairly reflected their offerings. It's hard to do justice to the statements of 18 candidates in a 750-word column, and I think it's a good thing that those reading the Web edition can easily judge for themselves.

One of the problems in writing a column based on candidates' websites for a print publication with a Friday deadline is that the websites may have changed by the time you've got the magazine in your hands on Monday or later in the week. I noted that Chris Dodd in his issues section sets out six issues but has text on only four of them. I suspect that his staffers will provide text for the other two pretty soon; maybe they already have by the time you read this.

Another problem in writing a piece of this kind is which candidates to include. Some readers may criticize me for not covering Ron Paul, the libertarian from Texas, who is running for the Republican nomination. Paul is for minimal government at home and abroad; he regularly casts lone votes on his side of the aisle against the Bush administration's (and the Clinton administration's) foreign policy. This is not the first time he has run for president; he was once the Libertarian Party's candidate. But there's nothing on his exploratory committee website about his position on issues; you'd have to go to his congressional website for that. Nor did I include George Pataki. His website talks about his record in office but doesn't have anything much on his views of issues facing the nation.

Other readers may criticize me for listing John Cox. He's a Republican, a Chicago-area accountant and investment adviser who launched a campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2004 and then withdrew before the primary. That's the seat ultimately won by Democratic candidate Barack Obama. Many journalists would say that Cox is not a serious candidate. And that's almost certainly true in the sense that his chances of winning the Republican nomination are microscopic. But you could make that same judgment about the chances of Tom Tancredo or Mike Gravel or Chris Dodd or Duncan Hunter. All but Gravel are likely to receive some coverage, and I think rightly so. After all, the press covered Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer in the 2000 campaign. In any case, I decided to mention Cox, who seems to be an intelligent man (I've interviewed him twice) and who has county coordinators in all of Iowa's 99 counties. One function of a columnist is to be a neutral or at least fair-minded conduit of information.

Most of the attention in this race is being devoted to six candidates–Republicans John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney, and Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama, and John Edwards. Certainly at the moment it seems likely–likely in the sense of more than 50 percent probable–that one of those six will be the next president. But let's give the other candidates some attention, too. The point of my column is that presidential campaigns give candidates the opportunity to advance innovative public policies. Usually it's the policies of the winning candidate that end up mattering. But the policies of losing candidates can matter, too. I've been disappointed so far by the intellectual output of the candidates. But perhaps they'll do better in the months ahead.

The Field Narrows

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack has withdrawn from the presidential race. Vilsack said that the reason he withdrew was "money and only money." He had raised about $1.1 million and was spending some $500,000 a month. You can do the arithmetic. Terry Michael sees it differently: He says that Vilsack had no message. "Money follows message in politics." The Des Moines Register's veteran political reporter David Yepsen sees it differently:

The hard reality for Vilsack is that he just didn't have that many grass-roots people supporting him. For example, on the day before Obama packed in Iowa crowds numbering in the thousands on his announcement, Vilsack announced a paltry list of 1,100 supporters, many from his home area around Henry County.

I'd put it this way: What we are seeing is the political marketplace in action, with money, message, and grass-roots support all involved. It's not quite fair to say that Vilsack had no message. He made "energy security" his central theme and built on his work as governor on ethanol and other projects. He was trying, I think, to arouse home-state pride by suggesting that Iowa had lessons to teach the rest of the country.

The problem is that it didn't sell. Take a look at these polls of likely Iowa caucus attenders. The Real Clear Politics average: Clinton 26 percent, Edwards 22, Obama 17, Vilsack 12. Vilsack ran fourth in five of the eight polls, third in three others. In none was he trailing the leader by less than the statistical margin of error.

Now it's true that it's hard to sample Iowa caucus attenders. About 120,000 Iowans vote in the Democratic caucuses; 1.5 million Iowans voted in the 2004 general election. But even if you concede that the sampling is necessarily dicey, Vilsack clearly wasn't polling well enough to survive among the people who know him best. In 1992, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin had enough support in the early going that none of the other candidates contested Iowa. Vilsack couldn't demonstrate that in this cycle. It was obvious from the beginning that he was not going anywhere unless he could win Iowa. And it seemed pretty obvious, even this early, that he wasn't going to do that. The political marketplace was delivering a message loud and clear. Vilsack heard it and acted accordingly.

Patrick Ruffini has another take on this. His point: It doesn't make sense for a long-shot candidate like Vilsack to run an organizational campaign; it's too expensive. Better to aim for media exposure.