I went out to see Chris Dodd at his final campaign rally for the Iowa Caucuses this morning.
I did so not because I plan on supporting Dodd this evening — I’ll be caucusing for Obama — or out of morbid curiosity but because I thought that Dodd deserved a good crowd and to be shown some appreciation for his effort. He may never have cracked one percent in the polls out here, but his presence — and those of the other so-called “second tier” candidates — has immeasurably enriched the process.
Senator Dodd and his wife, Jackie were gracious in thanking the crowd for their support and hospitality. As Jackie put it in discussing the Dodd family’s move to Iowa earlier in the year, “I really want you to treat my guy well, but, even more important, I want to thank you for treating my children well.” The rally, in fact, towed that narrow line between the elegiac and the hopeful, celebrating the sweetness of the experience — refusing to cede that the race is all but over — but tempered, at the edges, by sadness of the all but certain outcome.
And Senator Dodd, voice hoarse and cracking, went through his pitch one last time: His experience, the landmark legislation he has authored — and it is an impressive list — and the need for a tested and experienced hand in the Oval Office in these troubled times. His biggest applause lines came in discussing his filibuster of FISA and his belief in standing up for the Constitution, a line that seem to be part of every Democrat’s stump speech. (And while I find it reassuring that the Constitution gets a standing O from the crowd, I am also mildly unsettled that we have come to a point in out political life where it is even necessary for presidential candidates to feel like they have to make a point of the fact that they will preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
There was — is — nothing wrong with Dodd’s pitch. But as just one of the scrum of responsible experienced guys in the race, just having a solid pitch and a record of service and accomplishments has been insufficient to separate him from the pack.
Senator Dodd portrays himself as an agent of change, for example. And in many ways its true: he has a genuine record, be it as a Peace Corps volunteer or as the champion of the Family Medical Leave Act, of advancing progressive causes. But at the same time, its hard to get traction as the person who is going to shake up the system when you are a white haired middle-aged guy who has been in the Senate for 26 years. (And I want to be clear that I am not making a judgment here on Dodd or the rationality of the process, just reporting what I hear as I talk to people.)
In some ways, I suppose, it is too bad that Dodd has not gotten more of a shake. But the recipe for political success — as Senator Dodd himself well knows — requires far more than just having a solid record, gravitas, and being a good guy. There are certain indefinable elements of political leadership, including timing and whatever that thing is which is charisma. Obama, for example, like Bill Clinton, has charisma in spades. Hillary, as a woman, is able to send an effective signal that the status quo will no longer be what it once was just by walking into a room. Edwards has separated himself from the pack by his tireless work and full-throated battle cry. So the simple fact of the matter is that there is just not much political space left for a Dodd (or a Biden, or a Richardson, or a. . .)
I am loath to predict what will happen tonight — frankly, who knows — but I am guessing that Senator Dodd will finish well back in the pack. And even though his campaign might have come up short I have no doubt that Senator Dodd will return to the Senate and continue to serve our nation with distinction. (And who knows what else the future might bring.)
So, to Senator Dodd (and Biden, Richardson, Kucinich et al): Thanks for joining us here. Our political life is the better for it.
— Michael Schiffer
Michael Schiffer is The Washington Note’s blogger for the Iowa Caucuses and is a resident of Iowa. He is a program officer in Policy Analysis and Dialogue at the Stanley Foundation based in Muscatine, Iowa — and was previously senior national security adviser and legislative director in the Office of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)