Ballot Box

Sponge Bob

Why is this man running for president?

Why does this man run?

Every so often, ABC’s Note scolds pundits like me for not taking Bob Graham’s presidential candidacy seriously. He’s accomplished as a governor, well-versed in anti-terrorism as a senator, and hails from all-important Florida. He raised a quick $1 million just by hitting the phones while recovering from heart surgery. Well, good for him. But I’m not going to check his references till he explains why he wants the job.

Graham has had many chances to make his case. I’ve seen him speak at the April 9 Children’s Defense Fund forum, the May 3 South Carolina debate, his May 6 campaign kickoff, a May 17 AFSCME conference, last weekend’s Iowa Democratic Party picnic, and a town hall hosted by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, at which Graham spoke and answered questions for 90 minutes. Each time, I’ve come away baffled at his failure to explain why anybody should vote for him rather than one of the other Democrats seeking the job.

At the town hall and the picnic, Graham joked that any CEO who ran a company the way Bush has run the economy would be fired, unless that CEO was a friend of Bush. It was a funny line. But it’s the only funny line Graham has attempted. He’s a serious guy. In many ways, that’s admirable. Graham is from an older school of politics. He doesn’t do sound bites. Ask about an issue, and he’ll give you a terrific lecture on the problems and policy options. At the town hall, Graham was at ease discussing details of health care financing, agricultural production, energy technology, and how to structure the flow of intelligence within the government. His only screw-up, a reference to “Wade vs. Roe,” was an error of style, not substance. His explanation of retirement financing was lucid and masterful. The guy knows his stuff.

Better still, he shows poise and maturity. He’s got the best temperament in the race. I’ve never seen him get angry or defensive at hostile questions. He listens more than he talks. At the picnic, he broke out in song onstage. The lyrics were horrendous (“You’ve got a friend in Bob Graham …“), and the singing was worse. But can you imagine John Edwards trying that?

The trouble is, Graham doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do with the job. “To be elected president, you’ve got to meet some threshold tests,” he told the town hall audience. First, “you’ve got to be prepared to take George Bush on … and then say what your vision and your direction would be.” Second, you “have to have some fresh ideas” as to how to deal with the nation’s problems. So what are Graham’s vision and ideas? Search me. The guy had 90 minutes to explain them, and all he conveyed, briefly, was that he cares about the environment.

Graham’s best-known line is that he’s from “the electable wing of the Democratic Party.” Reporters interpret this as a slap at Howard Dean, who claims to be from “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” The inference is that Graham is running as a centrist. But he isn’t. He told the town hall crowd, “We need to look for alternatives to war. I think we went to war too quickly in Iraq.” He urged more emphasis on “our diplomatic capability.” At the picnic, he identified himself with Democratic “pragmatists,” whom he defined as politicians with “executive experience” who seek “common-sense solutions.” That, he said, is what he means by the “electable wing.” But that isn’t a wing; it’s a résumé. And it doesn’t distinguish Graham from Dean, who’s supposedly leading the other wing.

In a way, the CEO joke is really about Graham’s candidacy. Absent a distinctive agenda, he’s just running as a better manager. At the town hall, a skeptic asked Graham what he would do to make Democrats “a progressive party” again. Graham could have answered the question, or he could have defended a more moderate platform. He did neither. “The most important [step] is to get the current incumbent out of the White House so you’d have the opportunity to seriously deal with some of these issues,” he replied. How would Graham deal with those issues? He didn’t say.

I’ll gladly take Graham’s candidacy seriously, as soon as he does.

Correction: In Monday’s “Ballot Box,” referring to presidential candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, I wrote, “Somebody toss a dollar in his guitar case so he can buy a quart of milk.” Kucinich, a vegan, does not drink milk.