The 2004 Race: Martin Sheen for U.S. President?

Do the U.S. Democrats have any viable candidate for the 2004 presidential elections?

December 17, 2002

Do the U.S. Democrats have any viable candidate for the 2004 presidential elections?

Al Gore's announcement came on the heels of his appearance on the late-night comedy show "Saturday Night Live." The funniest segment of that show had him on the Hollywood set of the TV drama "The West Wing" — which follows the trials and tribulation of a fictitious "President Bartlett," a liberal Democrat from New Hampshire.

In the skit, Al Gore marvels at the detailed recreation of the Oval Office — and then proceeds to take a seat behind the President's desk, barking imaginary orders into a phone that is obviously not connected.

While the former Vice President plays President, the show's cast members try without success to get him to go to dinner with them. Finally, they give up and leave Mr. Gore on the set to continue playing himself in the imaginary role as President.

But now that Al Gore has removed himself from the next Presidential contest, the race is on for a number of other ambitious Democrats — many of them members of the U.S. Senate — to become their party's standard bearers.

Unfortunately, the lineup — which includes, among others, Senators Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards as well as former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and a few governors — is far from impressive.

In fact, this line-up is reminiscent of the infamous "Seven Dwarfs," the large bunch of unimpressive Democrats who in 1988 jostled for position to run against then-Vice President George Bush.

At the time, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was the "dwarf" ultimately chosen to run — and was soundly beaten in a landslide.

Thus, coming off a disastrous 2002 mid-term election, U.S. Democrats are not only looking at a minimum of two years of Republican control over both Houses of Congress as well as the executive branch. They also have an empty pipeline as far as serious political talent for the presidency is concerned.

And the bad news for the Democrats does not end in 2004 — and with George W. Bush. Remember that, two years ago, he was pooh-poohed as an accidental president and a one-term wonder?

Well, there is an even worse scenario that the Democrats need to reckon with going forward. Remember Jeb Bush's convincing re-election victory in Florida — despite the Democratic Party's best efforts to topple him?

Well, presidential brother Jeb Bush suddenly looks like presidential material himself. What if, after eight years of George W., there follows another Bush in the White House in 2008? That could be as much as 20 years of Bushes running the United States out of 28 years since 1988.

That would be totally unprecedented and, historically, the achievements of the Bush clan would then overshadow even the father-son combo of the presidential Adams family in the early stages of the United States.

Given the dire outlook, it may be time for the Democrats to look back at recent presidential races — and borrow a page from the Republicans' book.

In 1980, the Republicans were in an equally desperate situation. True, back then President Jimmy Carter looked by no means as unbeatable as George W. Bush does now, what with Iranian hostages and a sluggish economy.

Still, after the drawn out Watergate scandal in the mid-1970s, the Republicans were in continuous disarray and seemed completely down and out.

But they hatched a brilliant idea — casting Ronald Reagan as President. Mr. Reagan, a former actor, managed to look presidential even before getting elected. And even 15 years after leaving the office in 1988, he remains one of the most popular presidents in U.S. history.

So, the solution for the Democrats is obvious — if you can't find a viable presidential candidate among the politicians then cast an actor — say, one who plays a President on TV.

And, would you believe it, there is a perfect candidate. It's Martin Sheen, of course, who puts on a convincing performance as a passionate and strong leader every week — in front of an audience of millions. But his most important asset is his role as President Jed Bartlett on "The West Wing".

Mr. Sheen has hands-on liberal credentials that would make the party's base really proud. He has been arrested several times for protesting at U.S. military bases and campaigns regularly for Democratic candidates.

In addition, he has given — and raised millions — for Democratic Party causes. In short, he's a candidate who could not only fire up the party's liberal base — but would also appeal to lots of middle-of-road voters in living rooms all across America.

After all, he's a most familiar face to them. They have been sweating out all sorts of presidential crises and hooplas ever since the series got underway on NBC in September 1999.

Moreover, Mr. Sheen has a perfect ethnic mix for a future president of the United States. He has an Irish mother and a Hispanic father, who came to the United States from Cuba.

Hispanics are the fastest growing and increasingly powerful voter bloc in the United States. And even conservative Cuban-Americans might vote for Mr. Sheen — if it means electing one of their own as President. In short, Mr. Sheen might take Florida, the crucial state in the 2000 election.

In addition, elections in the United States are increasingly decided on television — which is why money plays such an important role in the election process.

Here, Mr. Sheen comes equipped with terrific assets. Not only does he have free TV time every week — but the show's fans are used to the idea of seeing him in the White House.

And, numerically, his fans are a major force. "West Wing" regularly scores among the top 20 TV shows. Upward of 15 million Americans watch it regularly.

Now, the show's ratings have been a bit disappointing this season. But that just might mean that Mr. Sheen may be looking for a new challenge in his life — and a presidential race might be just the one.

Considering that only around 50% of eligible voters bother show up at voting booths during presidential elections, this means that it will take less than 50 million voters to elect the U.S. President in 2004. Mr. Sheen, with his TV fan club, definitely has a head start over any other candidates from the Democrats' ranks.

And one more thing. In 2002, a sluggish U.S. economy did not seem to play a crucial role in the mid-term elections.

This may change in 2004. Here, it might prove crucial that, unlike Mr. Bush, Mr. Sheen is an economist — at least in his television role as President Bartlett, who worked as an economist before his election to the White House.