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WHAT WE THINK
Democratic presidential contenders battle over "electability"
The "lesser evil" is still evil

January 23, 2004 | Page 3

IS HOWARD Dean too extreme to win? That was the brand new conventional wisdom cranked out by the mainstream media after the Iowa caucuses this week, where Dean and Dick Gephardt--who had been expected to dominate the first contest in the primaries for the Democratic Party presidential nomination--got clobbered.

Instead, John Kerry and John Edwards each picked up about a third of the delegates, to finish first and second. The pompous pundits immediately declared that Dean's "bitter" style had alienated voters, proving that he's "unelectable"--while the "positive," more moderate campaigns of Kerry and Edwards were people's natural preference.

Hold on a minute. The caucuses drew only 100,000 people--less than 0.05 percent of the voting age population of the U.S., in one of the whitest states in the country. There's a long way to go before the Democrats come up with a nominee, and no one can predict where the race will go--or what the media's "wisdom" will be next week after the New Hampshire primary.

But the results of the Iowa caucuses do put a spotlight on how the question of "electability" has come to dominate the campaign for the Democratic nomination. Not long ago, Dean was expected to win a close victory over Gephardt in Iowa--with Kerry and Edwards far behind.

But the last two weeks saw a wave of abuse heaped on Dean, mainly by fellow Democrats denouncing him for being "too angry"--translation: too willing to be openly critical of both the Bush administration and Democrats in Washington who have caved continually to the Republicans. Gephardt, meanwhile, was counting on backing from organized labor to translate into caucus support. That flopped, and his dismal fourth-place finish pushed him out of the race.

Dean isn't the fire-breathing extremist that he's portrayed as. "Again and again," wrote New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, "one reads that it's about the left wing of the Democratic Party versus the centrists; but Mr. Dean was a very centrist governor, and his policy proposals are not obviously more liberal than those of his rivals.

In reality, Dean's "radical" image is a matter of style, not substance. Nevertheless, the anti-Dean campaign had an effect. The votes of undecideds--and even some of Dean's former supporters--went to Kerry and Edwards, the two candidates running in Iowa most associated with the Democratic Party establishment.

One statistic was especially telling. A majority of caucus-goers told exit pollsters that they were strongly opposed to the war on Iraq. But more of these opponents of war voted for Kerry--who voted for giving Bush congressional authorization to go to war--than for Dean, who did oppose Bush's unilateral invasion.

In other words, the media drumbeat about "electability" played to Kerry's advantage, winning him support from people who disagree with his actual positions on important issues like the war--but figure that he might stand a better chance of beating George Bush.

Meanwhile, Edwards--probably the most conservative candidate in the race aside from Joe Lieberman--got some help from one of the most liberal. Dennis Kucinich, a favorite of many antiwar activists because of his consistent opposition to the invasion of Iraq, told his caucus supporters to back Edwards--who, like Kerry, voted for the war--if they didn't reach the 15 percent threshold to have their votes counted in their precinct meetings in Iowa.

We're certain to hear more about "electability" as the media's attention turns to the January 27 New Hampshire primary--and Wesley Clark, who is neck and neck with Dean there, according to opinion polls. In fact, "electability" is the very excuse that some on the left have used to justify supporting Clark--most prominently, filmmaker and author Michael Moore.

Moore announced last week that he was endorsing the general--claiming that Clark is a "candidate that shares our values." What values are those? Clark claims to be an antiwar candidate, yet this is the man who ran NATO's war over Kosovo in 1999. As for Bush's invasion of Iraq, Clark has flip-flopped many times during the short few months that he has been a candidate.

All of this is a clear illustration of the logic of "lesser evilism"--the belief that people who stand for peace and justice need to vote for a candidate who stands for neither, in order to stop the greater evil of a Republican victory. Moore's newfound respect for Clark is one case in point, but the same can be said about even larger numbers of radicals who are supporting Howard Dean.

It's certainly understandable why millions of people are desperate to see Bush driven out of the White House. But does this justify voting for a Democrat who doesn't differ fundamentally with Bush--and whose party is ultimately committed to the same ends as the Republicans, even if it emphasizes different means at election time?

Building a left-wing political alternative that represents the interests of working people will never happen without recognizing that a left-wing third party will start out as a minority. Those who put off the job of building that alternative in order to vote for the Democratic "lesser evil" aren't choosing a slower or more moderate path to the same goal, but are turning away from it.

As the great Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs once said, "I would rather vote for what I want and not get it, then vote for what I don't want and get it." Those who support Clark or Kerry or Dean as the "lesser evil" are getting ready to vote for what they "don't want."

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