Not Firing on All Cylinders
By A.D. Freudenheim  

12 June 2005

Both the Associated Press and Reuters wire services are currently carrying news stories today about the continued backing that Howard Dean, the newish Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman, has from within the party – notwithstanding some of his recent comments about members of the opposition. According to the articles, Dean has been successful at raising even more money than former chairman and money-man Terry McAuliffe, and has focused his work on local party-building, particularly in so-called “red” states. As Reuters quoted one DNC member, “I hope Governor Dean will remember that he didn't get elected to be a wimp.”[1] Stevenson, McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis: you have been formally dismissed.

There are no wimps here at TTAISI, either – so we are not afraid to say that Governor Dean’s remarks about how Republicans “never made an honest living in their lives” were not only wrong, but stupid. Or maybe that is: not only stupid, but wrong. Of course, the real targets of such remarks are the wealthy GOP oligarchs in Congress, in the Bush administration, and in those copious “red” states. But Dean’s words too easily allow him, and by proxy all Democrats, to be painted into a corner for criticizing the hard-working Americans who do vote Republican – even if they do so for misguided economic reasons or because of vague, values-driven “beliefs.” Never mind that there are a great number of Democrats about whom one could make the same economic argument. From the outside (that is, outside the GOP and, increasingly, outside the Democratic perspective), it is easy to see how much truth there is in comments about the mischievous, lying nature of the Republican party, and how the party’s grand plans have duped many Americans into supporting them. The larger danger, however, is that instead of helping to build a base of Democratic support, remarks like Dean’s simply alienate those potential voters even more. They sound too much like an attack on all voters.

What is missing in the non-wimpy Howard Dean’s remarks, and in the platform positions of the DNC, are the bold plans needed for the United States, regardless of party. Criticizing the malfeasance of the Republicans and the Bush administration is too easy. Much more challenging – requiring real machismo – is an ability to take on the tough issues and break through Democratic pieties and Republican linguistic trickery (think of phrases like “death tax” or even “pro-life”) to propose new solutions. During his short-lived candidacy for President, Dean did just this, attacking the flaws of Medicare and Social Security, bit by bit, and beginning to suggest that there were alternatives both to the status quo and to President Bush’s risky proposals that favor the already-rich. It was this truth-telling that gave his campaign such energy and made him a great challenger, over and above the more staid John Kerry or the too-ardently-leftist Dennis Kucinich.[2] Big and bold ideas are needed, and the Democrats better start working on theirs; this is a particular area of weakness, as the entrenchment over Social Security, education and jobs so clearly reveals. From abortion to gun control to Medicare to “tort reform,” the Democrats are being out-fenced and out-foxed, and for the most part have yet to come up with out-of-the-box perspectives and ideas.

There is a more serious complication that will undoubtedly arise from this thick, deep muck: the wrong Democratic candidates for President in 2008. Thus far, for example, one of the few Democrats to have worked hard at a political repositioning is Senator Hillary Clinton. Clinton began this by (rightly) suggesting that the Democrats’ position on abortion needs to be more open and accepting of alternative perspectives, that preserving the right of individual choice is not incompatible with believing that in the larger sense abortion represents a deeper set of troubling social problems, and by tying this together with an open-armed acceptance of religious values in public life. Clinton is playing the proud Christian, and not for the first time.

Hillary Clinton, however, cannot win a national election for President; like it or not, she is tarred by her previous life as First Lady, and there remain too many anti-Clintonites out in the heartland, or at least too many people who allow themselves to believe the stories stirred up by the GOP. (Never mind that the nation is not ready for its first woman President.) Others Democrats are equally unelectable: Kerry, if he runs again, is weak because the strength of his rejection in 2004 (which is to say his extremely narrow defeat) does not automatically make him a good candidate in 2008 unless his skills as a politician have improved dramatically; Lieberman, if he chooses to run, because his political moderation makes him blend in rather than stand out (never mind that the nation is not yet ready for its first Jewish President); Edwards because, despite his boyish Southern charms, his politics have not evolved far enough from an understanding of American economics rooted in the world of 25 years ago; and many of the Democratic governors are either weak because their states are politically divided (e.g., Mark Warner in Virginia, Phil Bredesen in Tennessee) or because they face other complications (e.g., Rod Blagojevich in Illinois) or are simply too new or from less influential states (e.g., John Baldacci in Maine, Brian Schweitzer in Montana).

The field of potential candidates is extremely weak – as weak as the portfolio of Democratic ideas. In American politics over the last half-century, the focus in both parties has increasingly been on the candidates, a celebritization of the political process that proclaims “electability” as the highest value. Right now, the Democrats are worse off even than the Republicans were when they ran Bob Dole as their candidate in 1996, knowing that he could not win. The GOP of that period could afford such a loss: while the Democrats focused on investing in President Bill Clinton – who was successful at combining big ideas with electability – they ignored the broader political base needed to control Congress and the states, just as the Republicans were doing the opposite, focusing their efforts on the widest scope of territory and playing down their concerns about the stalwart old Dole taking a hit for the party. The proof that this has worked is not in the election of George Bush, but in the control of the Senate and the House of Representatives by bullet-proof majorities, and the strong numbers of Republican governorships and state houses.

Dean’s chairmanship of the DNC matters, and what he says matters. Mud-slinging in politics may be a strong tactic in a campaign, but name-calling alone will not win races – nor is it synonymous with strength or boldness. Perhaps the Democrats have been away from true power too long to recall this basic fact of political life.

[1] See “Democratic leaders back Dean, don't want ‘wimp’,” by John Whitesides, Reuters, 11 June 2005 and “Howard Dean Renews Attacks on Republicans,” by Will Lester, Associated Press, 12 June 2005.
[2] See for example my articles “Those Manly Candidates,” 11 October 2004 and “On Smaller Government,” 5 Oct 2003.
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