The Washington Times

How about this as the latest manifestation of the political legacy of Bill Clinton: a robust and growing field of aspirants for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2003?

If you think back to January of 1991, when President Bush was in the White House boasting sky-high popularity on the eve of a war with Iraq – if you see what I mean – the biggest question was whether the endlessly agonizing superstar of Democratic Party politics, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, would get in the race. He kept the suspense up for almost a year before deciding that the final answer was no.

Other than that, the Democratic race looked like a lackluster contest among the unknown and the obscure. Matters did not improve for Democrats following the swift U.S.-led victory in ejecting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush’s job approval rating hit the unprecedented over-90 percent mark, and most people from both parties figured the sluggish economy would pick up in the new year, right on schedule for Mr. Bush’s triumphant re-election in 1992.

In fact, of course, all was hardly rosy in Bushland. The president had seriously angered his conservative base with the 1990 budget deal, in which he broke his famous “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge. To the extent that after the war the base was willing to forgive, or at least forget and move on, Mr. Bush managed to undercut that possibility by reversing field on reauthorization of a civil rights measure he had long been opposing as a “quota” bill.

Meanwhile, the extraordinarily effective Senate majority leader, George Mitchell, was doing a superb job of bottling up Mr. Bush’s other policy proposals, which in truth were meager. The centerpiece, however, was a capital-gains tax cut on which administration officials were counting to give the economy a boost. And in truth, even in 1991, Mr. Bush, a foreign-policy man, seemed rather disengaged from the domestic aspect of the presidency. By the time commentatorPat Buchanan announced his primary challenge in the fall of 1991, the fact that Mr. Bush had long been far weaker than he seemed was becoming apparent. And then came the devastating charge of billionaire eccentric Ross Perot onto the political scene.

But none of the weakness was especially obvious in January 1991. If it had been, surely other high-profile Democrats would have been ready to contest for the primary nomination. Instead of then-leading lights Sen. Jay Rockefeller, Sen. Al Gore [who had run in 1988], and Dick Gephardt [then majority leader of the House], the field included Bob Kerrey, Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown, Tom Harkin and an unknown governor from Arkansas.

Who dares, wins: That is the lesson. The best description of Bill Clinton’s mad dash to the nomination remains the fictionalized version in “Primary Colors,” written by “Anonymous,” who turned out to be journalist Joe Klein. For the best view of the internal political collapse of the first Bush administration, the definitive source is my friend John Podhoretz’s deft impressionist account, “Hell of a Ride.”

Some [including me] have occasionally speculated that Mr. Clinton’s entry in the race was really intended as a practice run for a more serious bid in 1996, presumably following the end of the first President Bush’s second term. The more I think about it, the more wrong that seems. It strikes me as quite possible that Mr. Clinton had in mind that 1992 wouldn’t necessarily be his last chance if he happened not to win the nomination. But I don’t think you get through the primaries, let alone to the White House, unless you really mean it.

The fact is that from the start, Mr. Clinton had a firm grip on the kind of campaign he meant to run and the obstacles he was up against, first from his fellow obscure Democratic opponents, then from Mr. Bush. And he proved once and for all that nothing in politics is automatic, not even re-election of an incumbent president who had won a war and whose approval ratings peaked at 91 percent.

It is this fact that has not been lost on Joe Lieberman, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, John Edwards, Tom Daschle – and let us not forget Howard Dean, the Vermont governor who is the only January 2003 aspirant for 2004 comparable in obscurity or implausibility to the entirety of the field for 1992 as of January 1991.

Who dares, wins: But as Mr. Clinton also demonstrated, daring is not enough, even if it can be dazzling – as was his trapeze act with the skeletons from his closet. In order to win, you need to know how to get from here to there: a plan for beating the competition within the party and then the incumbent. If any of the prominent Democrats in the field has such a plan, so far they aren’t telling.