About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

the Dean infatuation, electability, and the 2004 Democratic primaries

letter to my friend Mike, a Dean supporter, who asked me to convince him about Kerry:

let me try to answer your political questions about kerry. i'm sure i cannot convince you that kerry is a better candidate than dean, and i wouldn't care to try, really. i like dean as well, and i think he has played a historically critical role (and as a historian, i ought to know) in shifting the terms of political discourse in the nation in the past 6 months or so. and i mean that seriously: if kerry wins the election, political historians will point to Dean's campaign as the catalyst sparking the decline of Bush's fortunes (also a shout-out to michael moore for uttering the word 'deserter,' and to Clark for making the unintentionally brilliant political move of refusing to distance himself from moore, forcing the media echo chamber for once to work for us). its hard to think of anything comparable to Dean's role in the past, aside perhaps from Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy in early 1968 (just after Tet), or (even better) Senator Fulbright the year before (he held senate hearings on vietnam, making criticism of the war legitimate for the mainstream).

I'll start out with some random observations, then throw in a list of reasons why i think kerry is preferable, and more electable (and i do see those as almost interchangeable).

in the end, my preference for kerry is very narrow, in some ways personal and visceral, and not based on particularly profound reasons (though i will discuss them, below). as i've stated before, i generally have very low expectations of Democratic presidential candidates, and hope only that they win. when we have a group of candidates that don't differ all that much (as was the case this year, at least among those with a real shot), i really only care about two things: 1) will people who don't think like me feel comfortable enough with them to vote for them; and 2) do they, at least in some small way, understand that being the president of a corporate capitalist liberal democracy demands that they see the inherent contradictions of a corporate capitalist liberal democracy (that the first two words will, always, undermine the last two, unless government remains vigilant). i don't know if i've ever voted for someone because i thought they'd make a great president in my eyes -- that they were 'the one,' or that they had 'the answer.' usually, i just try to vote for someone who is at least not asking the wrong questions.
i consider it an unexpected bonus if they actually attempt to lead the nation towards a profound discussion of baseline issues. i have only been passionate about one presidential candidate in my life, and that was Jesse Jackson in 1988. a victory by Jackson (as unlikely as it was) would have had a transformative effect on American life, and the world. no other viable candidate in my lifetime fits that description. dean doesn't. kerry doesn't.

this next paragraph may sound like dean-bashing, but i don't intend it to be. its really just a few thoughts on his rapid rise and fall. i've never quite understood the fervor (narrowly based, as it turns out) for dean. i can explain it, i think, as i'll do below; but i've never shared it. believe me, i yelled as much as the next guy when he came to spokane last year; i cheered reports of his unabashed and powerful truth telling with regard to the war; enjoyed his sense of fun as a candidate; and sent off money to him with a keystroke. it seemed like every dollar he received, and every person in attendance at a speech, amped up the volume of his voice within the body politic. i was so happy to hear someone, anyone that the national media covered who was saying what i and so many of my friends were thinking. and as i said above, i think that it made a tremendous difference. that doesn't necessarily make him a viable candidate, however, or a 'front runner' (a big media mistake, which perhaps his organization bought into as well -- how does someone with union endorsements and $40 million run such a lousy campaign? media is partly responsible, but not entirely). such fervor has usually been reserved for a candidate who represents a particular group breaking ground in national political life (usually a racial or ethnic group, or a religious minority, or a viable sectional or 3rd party candidate). many Democrats (not to mention others) actually found this fervor somewhat off-putting, myself included. it had all the qualities of a young man thinking he has fallen in love with a young woman, when in reality she is just the first girl to show an interest in him. for me, the fervor seemed completely out of scale with the candidate himself. just because he made a virtue out of necessity in fundraising (using the internet, because he had no other means) doesn't make him the second coming of thomas jefferson, a tribune of the people against the interests. he would have been much better off portraying himself as i like to see him -- a doctor, a pragmatist, with a long history of solving problems most people think government can't solve, a person who sees those problems as something to be honestly discussed, rather than politicall manipulated or put off to future presidents and generations. while he may have started that way, his message got lost somewhere along the way, and the timing was just awful -- because it got lost right about the time when Edwards found his voice, and Kerry fired his staff, fully recovered from prostate cancer, and began to find his voice. the notion that the capture of Saddam derailed Dean, as some have argued, is nonsense, i think.

his rhetoric notwithstanding, Dean is one more socially liberal centrist, like virtually every candidate the party has seriously considered in the past few decades (including Kerry and Edwards). some of them catch on beyond the Democratic base (Carter, Clinton), and some of them do not. they virtually never bring new people into the political process (dean included, all hype about the internet aside -- to the extent that new people have gotten involved, they haven't voted for him); the best they can hope for is that they mobilize the base, face a lackluster opponent, and convince a sizable number of independents that they will use the power of the presidency in a principled way. there isn't much that is remarkable about any of them (Edwards, actually, might be the exception -- as an orator). perhaps Dean's a little more passionate than most, and he had both the blessed luck and good sense to stake out a clear position on a volatile issue ahead of most politcians of similar beliefs and accomplishments (though of course in the literal sense his position made no more difference than mine did, as far as having a difference on policymaking). Dean also has a refreshing intolerance for the cant and nonsense of political rhetoric, and a directness that i find engaging (though many others don't).

but as precipitous as his rise was, his fall was virtually inevitable, as the race kicked into high gear, and as his own flaws as a candidate began to emerge (and as it became clear that his remarkable power to raise $ early on didn't translate into actual political power). obviously the national punditry decided, for whatever reason, that they didn't like him very much, and the echo chamber certainly hurt him and helped Kerry. it seems very unlikely to me that media criticism of Dean has much of anything to do with his position on media conglomerates (which wouldn't become law if he was elected anyway). perhaps the punditry made the mistake of thinking that Dean was 'too liberal' -- but part of that might be because so much of the Democratic left thought he was, too. unfortunately, it seems to have much more to do with personalities than with policy positions. the fact that the national political punditry liked Bush and didn't like Gore (and i don't mean liked their positions, i mean liked them personally) made an enormous difference in 2000. it is absolutely ridiculous that journalistic priorities are often set in that way, since the kinds of traits that beltway folks like in a person are probably quite different than what ordinary folks prefer. but of course Dean's rapid fall also has a great to do with Dean himself, as well as the growing strength and consistency of the Kerry and Edwards campaigns. his fall was imminent once it became clear that the only thing he had to distinguish himself from other candidates was that he figured out what he believed about the war before it started, and to his credit voiced it, from the hilltops. he is to be credited for that, and others who should have known better are to be criticized, for sure. but that wasn't and isn't enough for me, and apparently not for most other Democrats either.

electability: as the candidate stands up now (or in debates with bush in a couple of months) and states his positions on the war, the differences between Dean and Kerry (past and present) will seem to most undecided voters to be largely semantic. if we assume that the foreign policy of a kerry presidency will look almost exactly like the foreign policy of a dean presidency (and i think that's a safe assumption), then those differences basically will be semantic. the question of 'who took the right position first' will only matter to the antiwar left, which is going to vote for the Democrat anyway. and one doesn't have to dig very deeply into Kerry's life and record to discover that the one thing we know he consistently believes is that international problems have non-military solutions, virtually every time. we can't say that about Dean, because he basically has no record, other than making the right call on Iraq. most undecided voters (right or wrong) will actually find Kerry MORE credible than Dean on the issue (as have most Democrats), precisely BECAUSE he voted for the war initially, and then became disillusioned with the administration's dishonest botching of the mandate congress gave it. Democrats that take a centrist position on an issue, and then tack left, virtually always have more broad appeal to voters than those that do the opposite. I don't agree with kerry's position (though i can live with it), but the fact that his position (and its evolution) matches that of most of the electorate should enable him to neutralize Iraq and national security as an arrow in Bush's quiver. you are right that Dean's statements on the issue can't really be picked apart -- they are very consistent, and to me and you, of course, they are and have been dead-on. he was right, though a large percentage of Americans aren't willing to accept that yet. and as i've said before, he's not terribly convincing to the unconvinced on that score. kerry (especially once you throw in his greater familiarity and knowledge of foreign and military affairs) has a better shot at this. being right is not enough, if not enough people think that your opinion carries much weight.

you say that 'electibility' is a fiction of the media, and that is probably true, at least after Iowa, to some extent (though not entirely -- i do have a fairly specific thing in mind when i use it). but politics is all about usable fictions -- like the notion that dean (or clark, or edwards, or whomever) is an 'outsider,' while others in the party are 'washington insiders.' that kind of rhetoric strikes me as just silly, especially when used by one Democrat against another. the notion that Kerry is a tool of 'special interests,' for example, or that he is 'almost a Republican,' is just silly. every statement like that that Dean has made has just dug him into a deeper hole. the idea that because someone hasn't been elected to national office qualifies them to be elected to national office (or the reverse) has always struck me as ridiculous. running 'against washington' is a cheap political tactic with virtually no analytical or intellectual weight behind it. it plays into the now widely accepted Republican fiction that government is just a swamp of corruption and waste, that it serves no useful purpose, and is governed by 'them,' a group of folks trying steal our money and our opportunities (as did Clinton's statement that the 'era of big government is over'). it is that fiction which has made the Democrats a minority party, because it kicks the legs out from under the party's most basic beliefs: that government in a democracy, however flawed, can and should be an instrument for furthering justice, freedom, and opportunity, that public service in a democracy is a noble endeavor to be respected and encouraged, and that the 'common good' is something worthy of pursuit, and capable of being articulated. it might get them into the White House -- it got Clinton there -- but it makes it almost impossible for them to govern, or get their party in a position to control Congress. i do distinguish this kind of rhetoric from the populist rhetoric around economic justice that seems to be growing in the campaign, which i think has a great deal of validity ("Perfectly Legal," campaign-style). its much closer to the root of the problem than the 'Washington sucks' stuff that infused the term limits movement, the Reform Party, etc.

on a more personal note: working on the Jackson campaign in 1988 is when i first became aware of (and, a few times, met) Kerry. i worked with jackson's campaign in tennessee, and after the democratic convention, when dukakis won, i and many other jackson people jumped into his organization. i left school for the semester, moved to boston, and was a part of dukakis' debate research and prep team (it was, briefly, pretty heady stuff for a 21 year old). kerry was quite involved in the campaign (he had been dukakis' lieutenant governor), but more to the point, was pushing the senate to investigate iran contra, and the contra/cocaine connection, and bush the elder's involvement. the jackson folks trapped in the 'competence not ideology' vibe of the dukakis campaign loved the heck out of him for pushing the issue. the Dukakis campaign was divided between people who wanted him to push Bush on iran-contra, and to push on the savings and loan scandal -- with the Jackson people wanting him to be aggressive and populist, and the Massachusetts-based folks wanting him to leave it alone. kerry took our side. he basically framed himself in my mind at that point, long before i knew anything about his vietnam service, or his anti-war activities: while not much of a legislator (not then, and not since), he is an avid good government type, is impeccably honest, and has generally tried to use the power of his senate seat to uncover what needs to be uncovered, and to investigate what needs to be investigated -- to bring things to the public eye. the picture of him as some kind of waffling weather vane who says and does whatever is expedient really strikes me as both unfair and inaccurate. he is very much a boy scout type, a child of John Kennedy, with an almost naive faith and belief in public service. but he also seems to have a deep, strong reserve of character and bravery (as anyone who has spent anytime with him, including political opponents, like John McCain, will attest to), even if he seems to struggle intellectually at times with what this faith and belief in public service should mean in actual practice. he is also, when his back is against the wall, a very good debater and campaigner. unlike with gore, the viciousness of this election is likely to make him better as a candidate. it would force Dean into a series of irreversible public misstatements, which would quickly become the focus of all media discussion. the fact that kerry's wife waits in the wings to drop an enormous amount of money on his behalf doesn't hurt, either.

i've spoken quite a bit about electability here, but a few more thoughts, and then i'll end this ridiculously long thing (and edit it, and put it in my blog). as divided as the electorate was in 2000, it is even more so this year. we all know how close florida was, but many other states were just as close. perhaps 43% of voters will go for bush, no matter what happens; perhaps 40% will go for Kerry (or Dean) no matter what happens. never in modern american political history has there been such a razor-thin group of undecided/swing voters. this 10-15% will be the targets of this year's campaigns. if the Democrat just mobilizes the party's core constituencies in the same percentages as in 2000 (given demographic changes -- growth of the hispanic population, for example) he will guarantee a virtual tie, just like last time (i'm assuming more turnout for evangelicals for the GOP, and the theft of votes here and there).

that is the set up, for either kerry or dean. now come the questions: 1) will one of them be better able than the other to hold the base, while bringing in new voters? on holding the base: Democratic won the popular vote in 2000 by inspiring record turnouts among blacks and unions. even with the endorsement of major unions, dean couldn't hold them in the primaries. on new voters: dean's claim is that his internet campaign shows he's the one to do this. i don't buy it. an anti-war candidate isn't going to mobilize new voters in significant numbers. an economic populist might, but he's no more innovative or appealing on these issues than any other Democrat is. to the extent that new voters have participated in the primaries, they've voted for Kerry or Edwards, not Dean. 2) will one of them be able to steal some moderate Republicans or so-called 'Reagan Democrats,' while holding the base? even Dean supporters have to acknowledge that Kerry will be better at this than Dean. why? he's Catholic, and he's a decorated war veteran. add together the number of registered voters who are Catholic and vets, and who have generally voted for the GOP, and that alone may give Kerry the advantage over bush. the exit polls within the Democratic party, anyway, seem to indicate that Kerry has support among these groups. vietnam vets remain a surprisingly untapped voting constituency, and they number in the millions -- and many of them don't vote. they may now. working-class Catholics in industrial areas, many of them Vietnam vets, are THE swing voters in this election: Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania. Kerry has a much better chance with these folks than Dean does. are the reasons superficial? perhaps. but they're real. one pattern has been remarkably consistent in all of Kerry's elections in Massachusetts, and in all the primaries and caucuses this year: working-class Catholics vote for him, much like they voted for another rich New Englander -- Bobby Kennedy. if Kerry holds serve with Gore's voters, and wins Ohio, we don't need Florida. 3) will one of them appeal more to the swing voters than the other? again, it seems clear to me that Kerry is stronger here. swing voters, like most voters, pay some attention to politics, but not a great deal. to me they are the ones who agree with the Democratic party on most domestic issues, but they need to be pacified with regard to national security. kerry, by virtue of his war hero status, and his position on the war, can do this. Dean can't. if even a small percentage of the voters up for grabs worry about having a president with no claim to foreign policy knowledge or experience, Dean as a candidate would be sunk.

to conclude, however much we prefer Dean's stance and consistency on the war, he doesn't bring any advantages to the Democratic ticket. I just don't see Kerry's voting record being damaging enough during the race to offset the other advantages he has over Dean (whose record as governor, while impressive, won't seem any more relevant to voters than was Bush's, or Clinton's).

i've been telling people for weeks now that Kerry may choose John McCain as his running mate. if it happens, you heard it here first. if it doesn't, well, it goes into the books with my super bowl prediction. not saying i want him to choose mccain, but it sure would make things interesting...