Democrats doing it again

March 26, 1992

Downplaying the harm down to Gov. Bill Clinton in the Connecticut primary, Democratic National Committee Chairman Ronald H. Brown said, "I've never known a nominee who wins everywhere, every day." You can tell he's a Democrat. George Bush has won everywhere every day this year. Four years ago, Mr. Bush won everywhere every day after a single loss in South Dakota in February. Ronald Reagan won everywhere every day in 1984 and almost did in 1980.

One of the Democratic Party's greatest weaknesses in presidential politics is this instinct to turn on its front-runners, as the voters did in Connecticut Tuesday. In every presidential primary season, beginning in 1968, opponents have cut the ultimate winner to shreds clear through to the national convention. They have done so even in situations like this year's, when the dynamics of the race were such that it was apparent early on that the attacking loser almost surely could not himself win.

This in part explains why the Democrats have become so ineffective in electing a president.

But even by past Democratic standards, what occurred Tuesday was ominous for the party. Mr. Clinton is by every conventional characteristic -- money, organization, support by officeholders, delegates, total popular vote in the primaries, mainstream message -- the presumptive nominee. Yet he lost to a rival, former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown, who was regarded as a "lunatic fringe" candidate only a few weeks ago and is still regarded as no better than a spoiler.

Mr. Brown, after all, has yet to carry a big state or even come close. His 37 percent of the vote Tuesday is his high-water mark. Much of that, according to exit polls, came from voters who would have voted for Paul Tsongas, had he still been campaigning. As it was, 20 percent of the Democrats voted for Mr. Tsongas anyway. Had he stayed in, according to the exit polls, he would have carried Connecticut. In other words, Governor Clinton couldn't beat either one of them.

Big New York now looms as Governor Clinton's biggest test to date. If he can't decisively defeat Mr. Brown there, he probably can't then accomplish what is necessary if he is to do well in November. That is, coast to the nomination, with Mr. Brown reduced to an irritant but not a threat. If Governor Clinton does not show real strength in New York, he may not even be able to struggle to the nomination.

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