Thursday, November 20, 2003

Semi-Extended thoughts on the Democratic Nomination

It would seem, if the prevailing media coverage of the Democratic candidates is to be trusted, that Howard Dean has recently all but locked up the nomination. Looking at his November, he has survived his Confederate Flag remark, stepped out of the (partial) public financing system for the primary season (with John Kerry following his lead), and received the endorsement of two of the largest and most powerful unions. Signs of durability, strength, and mainstream or mass appeal.

The rest of the candidates are now said to be jockeying for position as the "anti-Dean"- the salvation candidate who saves the party from nominating the unelectable Dean. It's an interesting proposition: that Dean is a torrid fling, serving up what the Democratic activists want to hear but when it comes time to pick a winner, Dean's not it. A good for now girl, rather than a good for life one, if you will. He doesn't translate well to minorities or union workers, crucial elements of a primary and general election strategy for any Democrat. Though I am no fan of interest group politics (and for that matter the construction of the Democratic party) there is a validity to its claims. Dean, it is said, is too liberal and his Bush-hatred and anti-war position will prevent him from generating the mass appeal needed to win over 100 million votes next November.

But is he too liberal? Too liberal is certainly a subjective term, but let's take a look at the Dean people saw prior to 2003. Take, for instance, this American Prospect article from Summer 2002 (among the notable points here, "Raising money, Dean knows, is his embryonic campaign's most daunting task. "I'm going to be dead last in fundraising," he says, though he's counting on being able to pull in $8 million to $10 million going into 2004's first three primaries." My how things change). Dean is described as a "Rockefeller Republican," socially liberal and fiscally conservative, a description which is not incongruous with his current positions (repeal Bush's tax cuts because they're bankrupting the state, expand health care coverage, etc).

As for his ability to bring voters, enough voters, to the polls, there may be something there. But, as I discussed previously, there's also something such a claim misses. Namely carrying voters who would otherwise sit on the sidelines. If you will, voters who don't fall into one of the Democrat's cookie cutter groups. I have no idea how all of this shakes out, though I am sure the political revival is important.

I may have spent too much space treating the anti-Dean thesis as a respectable idea. Because it's not. It may well be valid, but it's not respectable. The candidate who is anointed the anti-Dean is staking out the mantle of safe, of solid. Admirable qualities indeed, but hardly the stuff of inspiration or the mark of leadership. The winner of the Democratic primary will not be the anti-Dean for that is a loser's title.

I am skeptical of the other candidates. Most of them are either soothing white noise for troubled sleepers (I'm looking at you Gephardt, Kerry, and Lieberman in particular) or basically just scary (ahem, paging Messrs Kucinich and Sharpton). Clark, Mosley-Braun, and Edwards strike me as independently viable candidates. Now, Mosley-Braun is not viable. She's not really running. I have no idea what she is doing, but hers is mechanically the most awkward Presidential campaign in some time (not raising money, not really traveling, no offices in primary states, etc). She is, however, easily the most cogent analyst of the current moment among the field. She has ideas, perspective, strength... vision. Clark could lead, that is clear. It's simply not clear what he would ask of us, where he would lead us.

Finally, there is Edwards. He easily possesses the most complete and comprehensive set of policies. They are mostly small potatoes ideas, trees which ultimately amount to a forest. And he sees the forest. Edwards sees both a big picture and detailed policies which, in conjunction, meaningfully address the big picture. He has energy and fire. A good story with which to wrap his vision and ideas. In short, he's a fairly ideal candidate, possibly a fairly ideal president, except for one thing. I have no idea what that thing is, he just doesn't have it. Maybe it's the relatively short political career. Maybe his overly youthful looks hurt him. Read his speeches, chew on his policies, listen to him speak, it's powerful stuff. But there's no resonance.

And that's the shame. The Dean campaign has been impressive but it needs a push. A challenge to further refine and define the candidate, to force it to add meaningful policy meat to its bones. Not a petty Lieberman, Kerry, or Gephardt campaign which will attempt to pigeonhole it to break off interest group support (the model here being the Gore campaign and Willie Horton in 1988 smacking Dukakis around). That type of contender doesn't quite exist, at least not at this point. My eyes say that leaves the Democrats, regardless of who carries the nomination, with something less than the best candidate they could field.

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