No Democrats stand up to challenge incumbent


WASHINGTON -- Considering the uneasy state of President Clinton's incumbency, and the very vocal criticism of him within his own party, why is it that no fellow Democrat has stepped forward to challenge his renomination next year, and none is even in the wings?

Recent history would suggest such a challenge would have been launched by now, or that some other Democrat would be the target of urgent intraparty pleas to take on the beleaguered incumbent. Long gone is the tradition that a sitting president has the right to a second term. Of the previous six presidents, only one -- Ronald Reagan -- escaped a challenge for renomination.

In 1992, Pat Buchanan took on President George Bush; in 1980, Sen. Ted Kennedy tried to oust President Jimmy Carter; in 1976, Reagan sought to derail President Gerald Ford; in 1972, Reps. Pete McCloskey and John Ashbrook opposed President Richard Nixon; and in 1968, Sens. Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy challenged President Lyndon Johnson.

In all of these challenges, the same complaints that are heard of Clinton today among fellow Democrats were heard then: either that the incumbent was a weak leader, or that he was taking the party and the country in the wrong direction.

About four years ago, when Bush broke his notorious "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge, conservative long knives immediately flashed at him. The Buchanan candidacy was one outcome and while it did not succeed in blocking Bush's renomination, it did underscore and fan disillusionment with Bush within the Republican Party and weaken him in his losing race against Clinton.

Today, Clinton is under fire within his party, from its liberal congressional base especially, for flip-flopping on his budget, agreeing with the Republicans that Medicare cuts will be required to balance it, thus undermining the Democratic argument that the GOP wants to balance the budget on the backs of the needy. There is much grousing, but no challenge.

Only Jesse Jackson among leading Democrats is again hinting about running, and there is much more speculation about an independent candidacy by him in the fall rather than slogging through the Democratic primaries against the incumbent.

The other party stalwarts most often mentioned as potential challengers all say they won't go -- Sens. Bob Kerrey and Bill Bradley and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. Kerrey and Bradley have no serious argument with Clinton on his budget switch and Gephardt, who does, knows that if the Democrats can somehow win back about 15 House seats in 1996, he will be in line to replace Newt Gingrich as speaker. That looks like a better gamble right now than trying to unseat the White House incumbent of his own party and then face a united Republican Party in the fall.

As for the liberals in the party who deplore Clinton's accommodating posture as the "new Democrat" who won election in that mode in 1992, there is no apparent tiger. Kennedy seems resigned to having had his presidential chances, and the reluctant dragon of 1992, Mario Cuomo, no longer seems a savior after his defeat for re-election in New York. Sen. Tom Harkin, who unabashedly carried the liberal banner in the 1992 Democratic primaries, has his hands full trying to hold on to his Senate seat next year.

So Clinton finds himself in the unusual situation, in recent presidential politics at least, of anticipating renomination by default. But the simple absence of a primary challenge won't be enough to carry a president who won by only 43 percent in 1992 back into the White House in 1996. He needs enthusiastic support within his party for his re-election as a base.

Genuine enthusiasm for him in the party, as in the country, can't be detected without a magnifying glass, however. The only positive side is that the election is still more than a year away, and as president he has the best platform available -- the White House itself -- to put his record and his intentions for the future in an advantageous light.

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