Look now at what the press' unsparing scrutiny of the deportment and oral hygiene of our presidential candidates has wrought: after Iowa, the Democrats, historically a joyful gang of rakes, rascals and rogues, were left with three straight-arrow leaders -- Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois and Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts -- who among them appear to be without a single redeeming vice. To celebrate their collective survival, the three men might go out together and paint the town beige.
Soon more defeats will sentence even more of the Democratic candidates to political nonpersonhood, where an iron rule holds that while the fame of a primary victory may be fleeting, the painful notoriety of a primary defeat can be forever. (Recall Democrat Eugene McCarthy's cruel barb at Michigan Gov. George Romney, who withdrew from the 1968 GOP race after conceding he had been "brainwashed" on the issue of Vietnam: "I don't know why Romney was brainwashed; in his case, a light rinse would have been sufficient.")
Before anything else happens, here is a ready-to-use guide for getting a handle on the current Democratic field.
Most recent Democratic presidential candidates have followed one of two routes to the nomination and/or the White House. For want of imagination, we will call these two different schools of campaigning the Skins and the Shirts.
The Skins' message to the voters usually includes such themes as "Your Cause Is My Cause," "I'll Fight Your Fight" or "I'm One of You." A Skins' candidate does not hesitate to appeal to and to enlist identifiable voting constituencies, often emphasizing his own qualities of caring and commitment.
The Skins are generally more specific about what they pledge to do to remedy current wrongs than are the Shirts, who speak more vaguely, if sometimes more movingly, about The Future and less about yesterday and today.
Most Shirts candidates are less obviously constituency-based in their approach to the electorate. Their language, by which they wish us to judge them, is often full of uplifting rhetoric about "national challenges," and their campaign speech is less apt to be customized for different audiences. The Shirts like to emphasize "leadership."
Obviously the two paths are not mutually exclusive, and those Skins who have won the Democratic nomination and/or the White House -- Hubert Humphrey and Harry Truman, among others -- had a large measure of Shirt in them. And the same is true for successful Shirts -- such as Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy -- who could play the Skins game when necessary.
By this division then, Gephardt, Simon and Rev. Jesse Jackson of South Carolina and Illinois are fundamentally the Skins candidates of 1988. The Democrats who chose the Shirts path this year included Dukakis, former Colorado senator Gary Hart and former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt (who's dangerously long on specifics for a Shirt). Alone in the field, Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. is trying to run a Skins strategy -- with a regional appeal to his native South -- while invoking the prose of the Shirts about his party's "national problems."
In spite of their surface similarities of looks and youth, Gore has a task much different from that of Roman Catholic John Kennedy. In 1960, Kennedy could safely assume the overwhelming backing of his co-religionists without ever having to make even a single semi-public overture to Catholic voters. The reason for that, quite bluntly, was that American Catholics in 1960 were still tribally united by their shared experience as social political "outsiders." By writing off Iowa Democrats as hopelessly insular and parochial and simultaneously insisting that his message, alone of the current Democrats', is truly "national" in appeal, Gore is not emulating Kennedy. In the 1960 West Virginia primary, Kennedy bet his candidacy and at least a fraction of his family's fortune to prove he could win in a 97 percent Protestant state. Following that lead, Gore ought to have campaigned in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
In 1984, with earned endorsements from the National Organization for Women, the National Education Association, the AFL-CIO and what seemed to be a plurality of elected Democrats not under indictment or detox, Walter Mondale was clearly a Skin. In the spring of 1976, Jimmy Carter had first won notice as a different sort of Skin, telling primary voters: "I want a government as competent, compassionate, honest and decent as you are." He managed to win in the fall because, like John Kennedy, he had strong backing from his own fellow "outsiders" -- white Protestant southerners and socially conservative Democrats. Four years before that, George McGovern, by presenting himself as the most antiwar of the candidates, emerged as an innovative Skin who deftly enlisted the youngest generation to become his core constituency.
Undeniably, the big winner of the week was noncandidate Dan Rather. If Vice President George Bush had won in Iowa, Instant Analysis would have concluded that the tiff on CBS had catapulted Bush to victory. The rest of us were thus mercifully spared all prospects of staged spats between Paul Simon and Dr. Ruth or Alexander Haig and Geraldo Rivera. For the time being, the Democrats have a race with two Skins, one Shirt, a shortage of eloquence and a lack of passion. And this year it could be the press' fault.