One of my recent insights about politics is that most politicians are either Saviors or Counters. (Apologies for the lame, "there are two kinds of people" framework to this theory. It's still a good theory.)
Saviors are those who want to appeal to everyone. They see themselves as having a message or a mission that, ultimately, most voters can appreciate. They say things like, "I believe my message is right for the challenges we face as a nation..." Or they talk about "new politics," "changing the dynamic," or about how their campaign isn't about them but is driven by "the people." They believe they can change the mundane rules of politics.
Counters are more workmanlike. They start with a small energized base, and then calculate how to add just enough to the base to get to 50.1%, or less if they need only a plurality, as Bill Clinton did in both 1992 and 1996. They say things like, "protect Medicare," "hold HMOs accountable," and "don't turn back the clock..." They see politics as a game with a set of rules that they either learn, or lose.
Bill Clinton was a brilliant Counter. Hilary Clinton did a textbook job of counting when she took a state in which 45-47% of people didn't want to vote for her under any circumstance, and figured out how to produce exactly the 52% she needed. In the 2004 field, Dick Gephardt is certainly the best Counter: he starts with a base in labor and then calculates how he can add to that base a narrow victory in Iowa, a third-place finish in New Hampshire, a victory in Missouri, etc., etc. until he can go into the convention with just enough delegates to prevail in a multi-candidate race. On George Bush's behalf, Karl Rove is certainly a Counter.
Often Democratic primary races come down to a Counter versus an outsider candidate who is a Savior. Bill Bradley was a Savior. His campaign saw no reason that anyone wouldn't vote for him, even if he had opposed their interests in the Senate. Gary Hart was a Savior, Walter Mondale a Counter. In 1992, Tsongas was a Savior. This year, I'm not sure whether Kerry is a Counter or a Savior, which is typical of his campaign -- it's not one thing or another.
Having worked for a Savior (Bradley), it's my belief that Counters usually, but not always, beat Saviors. The problem with Saviors is that their constituency is everyone, which means that, when the going gets tough, it can suddenly be no one. A good motto of politics is this: If you can't figure out why someone wouldn't vote for you, it's hard to figure out how to persuade them to vote for you.
On the other hand, look at Gephardt or Bush. They know exactly what their base is. You'll never take the hard right away from Bush, even if you prove that he condoned an act of treason, as seems increasingly likely. You'll never take a certain segment of the labor base away from Gephardt. And both know exactly who won't vote for them, and aggressively write them off. Because they think of politics in terms of the base vote, plus the incremental votes they can add to it, Counters have a great freedom of maneuver: Clinton could sign welfare reform, for example, knowing that his electoral base wasn't going anywhere. But he would never take the risk of alienating marginal, swing voters. Saviors don't think in the same terms, don't even speak the same language. So they often don't understand what they can get away with and what they can't. That's part of Howard Dean's problem right now. He can't seem to figure out whether he should be for raising the Social Security retirement age or not. Why? Because he's not sure where or who his constituency is, beyond young, very liberal activists.
Since most politicians are Counters, it would be silly to say that Counters always win. They don't, and sometimes Saviors do win. Gray Davis is certainly a Counter, while Schwarzenegger seems to be a Savior. But the law in California has created a situation in which the Counter, Davis, has to get to 50%, whereas the Savior only has to get 30% or so. Davis is a Counter who just counted wrong. And, it seems, he didn't appreciate that he had some freedom to make tough choices because he had a base he could count on.
We need Saviors in politics. They offer the moments of inspiration that can keep people going for decades, as RFK did. And we need them to win ocasionally. We might need one right now. Ideally, we can find a Counter who can speak the language of a Savior, much as Bill Clinton was able to do at the highest moments in his career.
Politicians aren't generally born Counters or Saviors; they are created by circumstances. Howard Dean, for example, looked a lot like a typical Democratic Counter to me when I first saw him testifying in favor of welfare reform in 1994 or, as The New Yorker noted this week, opposing Michael Dukakis as too liberal in 1988. But "People-Powered Howard" is certainly a Savior, apparently caught up in the belief that his early successes in New Hampshire polls, in Internet enthusiasm and in fundraising are tantamount to winning the nomination by acclamation. It's a very dangerous assumption.
The big question in the 2004 elections: Is Wesley Clark a Counter or a Savior? He certainly enters as a Savior. As with Kerry, the guiding idea of his campaign is that voters in November will be universally comfortable with a military hero, an articulate and moderate voice. If that's the only thing making his campaign go, he'll have a hard time in the Democratic primaries, because it doesn't help to answer questions like, "which primaries do I put resources into, and which should I ignore?." But the presence of all the Clinton and Gore advisors suggests that maybe Clark will understand the strengths of the Counter: how to parlay a third-place finish in New Hampshire and a second-place finish in South Carolina into a showdown with Dean in which he can prevail in a multi-candidate race.
If Clark goes into the primaries thinking he's a Savior, able to win any primary if he just meets enough people, he's asking for trouble. The only thing that might save him is if his main opponent is Dean, who is a Savior, too.