Opinion: Presidential candidates with small prospects dream big
Bretton Woods, New Hampshire — New Hampshire is for dreamers.
Darby Field was a dreamer when he became the first white man to ascend to the top of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the White Mountains and the backdrop of this town that played host to the famous 1944 financial summit that established the International Monetary Fund.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was a dreamer when he took the tragic story of a family destroyed in the Willey Slide of 1826 only miles from here and transformed it into one of his twice-told tales, the “Ambitious Guest,” that he published nine years later.
Since then there have been many ambitious guests — Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado in 1984, former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts in 1992, Patrick J. Buchanan in 1996 — who also were big dreamers, and these three dreamers actually won the primary here.
Now ambitious guests in these hills are dreaming again.
They are presidential candidates with small prospects but big hopes. One is a former Republican governor of Massachusetts who is taking on the quixotic task of challenging President Donald Trump in his own party. A second is a businessman who counters Trump’s MAGA theme (“Make America Great Again” with his own MATH theme (“Make America Think Harder”).
And a third is an Army National Guard veteran who served in Iraq and Kuwait and has plastered billboards all over the state — a highway presence greater than any other candidate — displaying her picture and bearing simply three enigmatic words: “A soldier’s heart.” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who did not make the cut for the September or December Democratic debates, won the support of 1% in the CBS News Poll of likely voters in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary released last Sunday.
Former Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts has little chance of defeating Trump — himself something of a dreamer when he began his White House quest — in the Feb. 11 Republican primary that is attracting little attention even here. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, competing in the Democratic primary, has yeasty hopes and imaginative proposals and maybe has a better chance of attracting attention, and perhaps voters, including the independents who can take a ballot in either party’s contest. He’s been in all six 2019 debates and raised eyebrows here by raising $16.5 million in the last three months.
I viewed these two quixotic candidates at campaign events 62 miles apart on snow-encrusted roads in a single day recently and found several similarities:
Strong opposition to Trump. Grave concerns about the direction of the new Republican Party. A reliance on common-sense arguments to win supporters. Articulate rationales for their candidacies. And the likelihood of making a point but not necessarily a difference in the 2020 campaign.
Listen to Weld on the president, from an interview last week: “Mr. Trump doesn’t have any knowledge base.” Here is Weld, who ran as the vice presidential nominee on the Libertarian ticket in 2016: “Each party needs the other to scare their base so they can get re-elected.” And on the national mood he has sensed: “All around the country people are exhausted. They don’t want to talk about Trump. They don’t want me to stand up in front of them and tell them what a jerk Trump is.”
Now listen to Yang, from his rally in the back banquet room of the vintage Governor’s Inn in Rochester, N.H., on the new economy: “We have to rewrite the rules of the 21st century to work for you and your kids, because it’s not doing that how.’’ Here is his message to younger voters: “If you are a young person and feel like we’ve left you a mess, I apologize, because we have.” And here, on the effect he thinks his plan to give every American $1,000 every month, an echo from an unlikely source, the Nixon Administration’s Family Assistance Plan that passed in the House in both 1970 and 1971 but died in the Senate Finance Committee: “the trickle-up economy.”
Weld is an indefatigable campaigner who at 74 still can endure a campaign lunch stop at the senior lunch program in North Conway, where the other day he downed a plate of Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, corn and Caesar salad. Not that his message is all that welcome in Republican circles. “I’m against him,” local real-estate broker Steven Steiner, told me. “Everything he’d do would ruin the economy.”
There remains little taste inside the Republican Party for a challenge to the president. “The Republicans who make a living hating Trump hated him before he was elected,” Scott Jennings, a former aide to George W. Bush and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, wrote in the Los Angeles Times earlier this month. “The rest of the party remains solidly behind him.”
Not so in the Democratic Party, where Yang hopes for a Granite State breakthrough. “I’ve never seen another guy who can get people who voted for Donald Trump to support him,” said former Mayor Steve Marchand of Portsmouth, on the New Hampshire seacoast at the border with Maine.
Some 36 years ago, one of the New Hampshire Primary’s biggest dreamers, Gary Hart, operated below the radar both here and in Iowa, which holds its precinct caucuses eight days before voters go the polls in New Hampshire. He gave speeches in remote locations, mobilized a core of activists to build a political organization, and surprised a political establishment that bought the notion, published in the New York Times just before balloting here, that no candidate in years had assembled a formidable campaign operation to match that of former Vice President Walter Mondale, who had won the Iowa caucuses.
Hours later Hart won the New Hampshire primary. But four days earlier, he dressed in a black-and-white lumberjack’s shirt and joined a woodmens’ competition in Milan, N.H., a faraway North Country hamlet with a population less than 1,200. He picked up a two-pound, two-edged ax and hurled it at a wooden target. It was a bullseye — and a metaphor for what Weld and Yang are seeking: a direct hit on an established target from an unlikely source.
You may say that Hart was a dreamer, to paraphrase the great political scientist John Lennon. But he’s not the only one.
David Shribman is former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.