December 25, 2003


Jihoward: Howard Dean, suicide bomber (William Saletan, Dec. 22, 2003, Slate)

Either all this stuff from the Dean campaign about the establishment is an attack on the Clintonian center, or it's the usual meaningless blather that politicians toss to crowds to make themselves look nonpolitical. Either way, it's fake. I think it's blather, but the more Dean talks about it and applies it to various issues, the more it looks like an attack on the center. And if that's the mission Dean has in mind, Democrats would be well-advised to jump off his truck before he blows it up.

Dean often says Democrats can't win by running as "Bush lite." Thursday, he accused "Washington Democrats" of failing to oppose President Bush more diametrically on Iraq, tax cuts, and education. "The Democratic Party has to offer a clear alternative," he argued. Toward that end, Dean rejects nearly every proposition or policy put forward by Bush. "We are no safer today than we were the day the planes struck at the World Trade Center," Dean said Thursday, adding that the capture of Saddam Hussein "does not mean that this president—or the Washington Democrats—can declare victory in the war on terror."

Picture that debate next year: On one side, Bush, the Washington Democrats, support for some tax cuts, relief at Saddam's capture, and the belief that by toppling the Taliban, if not Saddam, we're safer today than we were on 9/11. On the other side, Howard Dean.

There's a revealing dynamic at work here--what we might call the moderate Left, maybe even the Clintonian Center (if we give them the benefit of the doubt) has come together, perhaps too late, to try and squelch the insurgent candidacy of Howard Dean, a candidate too far out of the American mainstream to win. Compare this to four years ago, when the neocons and others on the moderate Right backed the insurgency of John McCain, a candidate perceived to be more squarely in the American mainstream than George W. Bush, the religious/social conservative. The problem in both cases? Nominations go to those in the mainstream of their party, not of the nation.

The revealing part? Though it seems absolutely certain that John McCain would have done so more easily, the more conservative George W. Bush did still beat a sitting vice-president in a time of peace and prosperity, even after having to campaign to the Right to win the nomination. Meanwhile, Governor Dean is already having to try and reposition himself to the "Center", before a single primary vote has been cast, and there's no chance he can win the general.

What does it all mean? It would seem to indicate that the mainstream of the GOP is far closer to, if not convergent with, the broad American mainstream than is the Democrat. If true, this has obvious implications not just in the presidential race this coming November but for the future of the Democratic party and its ideology.

For fifty (or sixty or seventy, depending how you measure) years, Republican ideology diverged from that of most Americans, and during that time the GOP was consistently the minority party. Twice, when the Democrats got us bogged down in wars in Asia, moderate Republicans were able to win the presidency, but then governed in ways little-distinguished from Democrats. It was only with the coming of Ronald Reagan in 1980 that a winning Republican truly stepped out of the mainstream--that after the New Deal and Great Society had so polluted the mainstream as to make folks start looking for a way out. Since then, in fits and starts to be sure, Republicans have slowly but surely become the majority--in Congress, in the states, etc.. And here we come to the point that will explain why I've been belaboring that "mainstream" metaphor to the limits of your patience--Edmund Morris writes the following in his book Dutch;

For whatever reason, there was born here, far from the mattering world, an ambition as huge as it was inexorable.  Out of Tampico's ice there grew, crystal by crystal, the glacier that is Ronald Reagan: an ever-thrusting, ever-deepening mass of chill purpose.  Possessed of no inner warmth, with no apparent interest save in its own growth, it directed itself toward whatever declivities lay in its path.  Inevitably, as the glacier grew, it collected rocks before it, and used them to flatten obstructions; when the rocks were worn smooth they rode up onto the glacier's back, briefly enjoying high sunny views, then tumbled off to become part of the surrounding countryside.  The lie where they fell, some cracked, some crumbled: Dutch's lateral moraine.  And the glacier sped slowly on.

In that sense, I suppose, one could say that the story of Reagan's life is a
study in American topography.  Thirteen hundred miles southeast of Tampico this winter day, the glacier has at last stopped growing. The nation's climate is changing; so is that of the world.  New suns, new seasons, are due. Yet when all the ice is gone, when fresh green covers the last raw earth and some future skylark sings heedlessly over the Ronald Reagan National Monument, men will still ponder Dutch's improbable progress, and write on their cards, How big he was!  How far he came!  And how deep the valley he carved!

The possibility exists, though we won't know definitely for decades, that Ronald Reagan carved so deeply as to divert the American mainstream into a channel it will follow for quite some time. As Lincoln made this a Republican country and FDR a Democratic one--each for roughly seventy year periods--so might we one day understand these years to have been the early days of a Republican epoch. In this regard, we'd note that George W. Bush, though the son of a Republican president, is rightly considered Reagan's Son. Indeed, he seems nearly the ideal figure to complete what Reagan started, the mainstreaming of conservatism.

-Diary of a Dean-o-phobe

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 25, 2003 5:44 PM

The next 30 days could be a lot of fun watching the traditional media handle the Dean-vs.-the-world secnario, especially if the "moderate left" is coming together to try and stop Howard from getting the nomination. That's because while the press is liberal in general, there are different shades of it, ranging from those who see the same Wile E. Coyote-off-the-cliff future for the Democrats that Saletan does, and those whose passionate hated for Bush makes them just the type of people who have given Dean his teflon coating so far (a Paul Krugman in print or a Katie Couric on TV are two examples of the latter).

How many assignment editors, braodcasters and reporters there are in one group and how many there are in the other may decide what type of press Dean and his rivals receive between now and the Iowa and New Hampshire votes. And if the general trend drifts towards Saletan's viewpoint, look for the Dean folks to really start compalining about the conservative media bias.

Posted by: John at December 25, 2003 8:27 PM

Ideology aside, the press also despises incompetence, which is why many candidates go nowhere, and why some Presidents find themselves hated when they feel the press should be allied with them (Johnson, Carter, Clinton to a small degree). This is one reason why Bob Graham, a candidate on paper who looked so good (from FL, on the Intel. committee, won 5 big elections, etc.) died an early death. It is why Teddy could never get past the Roger Mudd interview in 1980. And it is why Bush (and to a degree, Reagan) got pretty fair coverage while they were campaigning. They ran tight ships and the media knew it.

Where Dean stands with Rather, Jennings, and Brokaw I have no idea. If he fumbles around, he will lose them and the rest of the elite media. But we do know that the NYT would endorse Kucinich before it would endorse Bush.

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 25, 2003 9:34 PM

While I agree with much of this analysis, I do not understand the rationale for asserting that McCain would have won the general election more easily than Bush did. McCain's candidacy was nothing more than vainglorious exercise, an illusion driven by the media; it had no organization and zero grass-roots support. Apart from the always quirky new Hampshire primary, the only early states that McCain was able to win were Arizona (his home state) and Michigan (fueled by a deliberate attempt by Democrats to cross party lines and vote to damage George Bush, whom they knew to be a stronger candidate in the general election). If McCain had been the Republican nominee, many voters such as myself would have preferred to stay home. In my mind, McCain is a classic RINO, as evideced by his life's achievement, the campaign-finance reform bill. Further, I cannot imagine any other Republican apart from a Southerner such as Bush being able to win states like Arkansas and Tennessee against the home sons, Gore and Clinton.

Posted by: sam at December 26, 2003 12:19 AM

Kid glove treatment from the press, the GOP would have voted for him anyway and enough Democrats thought well enough of him to give him some crossover appeal where Bush had none.

Posted by: oj at December 26, 2003 12:36 AM

The quoted passage from 'Dutch' is pure poetry. If only Morris could have overcome his dislike of Reagan, 'Dutch' could have been one of the great biographies.

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen at December 26, 2003 12:49 AM

jim hanlen,

What effect would you expect a NYT endorsement to have for anyone? IMO the NYT/WaPo axis has lost its ability to have any substantial impact whatsoever. I would acknowledge that in every election there are a few million voters who are becoming serious concerning politics for the first time in their lives but I would note that this will be the first Presidential election in history to have the internet as a viable alternative to newsparers with regard to the dissemination of opinion. In fact, one of the factors that may work against Dean with regard to print journalism is Trippi's focus on the internet. It is hard to imagine print people being tremendously excited about a campaign focused on using an alternative medium in getting its message out.

I agree with you totally in regard to journalist's disdain for ineffective campaign management. Trippi's gloss is already gone and I would expect him to be feeling like one of Glen Reynold's puppies before the end of next month. Hubris has such charming rewards.

Posted by: RDB at December 26, 2003 1:02 AM

I have to second the "McCain wouldn't more easily" meme. As was pointed out the win in Michigan was largely due to John Conyers ginning up the Democratic Machine to come out in favor of McCain, partly because it would weaken the GOP field, and partly because it would embarass the GOP governor at the time, Engler, with whom Conyers already had a bitter feud on other issues. I suspect much of McCain's "bipartisan support" both in the press and with Democrats, would have evaporated when McCain's opponent was Gore Jr. rather than "W", witness how McCain's getting a LOT less positive ink from mainstream media for backing GW on the war than he did for opposing him on CFR.

Posted by: MarkD at December 27, 2003 4:06 PM