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What they really mean by "electability"

January 30, 2004 | Page 8

ALAN MAASS looks at the new media obsession in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.

FORGET WHETHER they supported the war on Iraq. Doesn't matter if they voted for USA PATRIOT. Who cares what they say about health care. The only thing that seems to matter in the race for the 2004 Democratic Party presidential nomination is "electability."

After the surprise one-two finish of Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards in the Iowa caucuses last week, you could barely find any other subject in the mainstream media's coverage of the Democratic primaries following. Kerry rode the momentum from his Iowa victory to a win in the New Hampshire primary, too.

Passing him in the polls going the other way was Howard Dean, though Dean managed to do slightly better in New Hampshire. Still, only a few weeks before was thought by pundits to be a good bet to win big in both states--and gain a virtual lock on the nomination. Then Dean got trounced in Iowa--and made matters worse with an out-of-control "concession" speech that ended with the now infamous howl heard around the world.

The speech, and especially Dean's frenzied yell, was seized on as the perfect illustration of his "angry" style--which, according to fellow Democrats and media commentators, had alienated voters looking for a more moderate candidate who looked "presidential."

Less talked about was the fact that both Kerry and Edwards had overhauled their campaign messages to make sharper criticisms of Bush and use more populist rhetoric--prompting the Dean campaign to accuse both of trying to steal its message.

Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom was that the Iowa caucuses were "a moment of pragmatism" in which voters supported the two contenders who "looked most electable," as a New York Times editorial put it.

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ALL THIS is music to the ears of the Democratic Party establishment. To them, an "electable" candidate tailors their positions to be as close to the Republicans as possible, in order to appeal to conservative "swing voters." The party's voting base may like a more liberal appeal, goes the reasoning, but they will vote Democratic no matter what. Elections are won and lost by who wins over the narrow group of voters in the middle--and you can only get their support by playing to conservative issues.

This has been a losing strategy for Democrats. The same party leaders who talk about electability today are responsible for Democrats being "unelected" from control of the Senate in the 2002 congressional elections--and the White House in 2000, for that matter.

In both cases, the party leadership's approach was to take liberal support for granted and tailor a message that would to appeal to the "center." That allowed Republicans to appear more decisive--and gave Democratic voters no reason to show up on Election Day. As Democratic strategist James Carville put it in the post-election spin: "We've got to just stand for something. No one made the case."

Party leaders in Congress have used the same logic to justify their total failure to stand up to the Republicans. From tax cuts for the rich, to the war on Iraq, to new restrictions on abortion rights, the Democrats have provided Bush with his margin of victory again and again during the first three years of his reign.

Kerry fits right in with the program--which explains why he was the early favorite for the nomination a year ago. He may have a liberal voting record as a senator from Massachusetts--traditionally, a Democratic stronghold. But he's a professional politician who doesn't hesitate to pander to his right.

When asked whether he was too liberal at last week's debate, for example, Kerry happily declared that he was anything but--emphasizing his support for a capital gains tax cut, his record as a prosecutor who "sent people to jail for the rest of their life," and his love of...yes, hunting. His favorite line about foreign policy is that he would wage a more effective "war on terror" than Bush.

Kerry will talk left if he thinks that will win votes. But he's as two-faced as any Democrat around.

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SO HOW did Howard Dean come to be seen as an "unelectable" radical? It's certainly not because of his political positions. On the issues, Dean is hard to distinguish from his opponents.

Though he opposed George Bush's unilateral invasion of Iraq--on the grounds that the United Nations and other U.S. allies should have been involved--he supports the continued occupation of Iraq "now that we're there." Dean is actually to the right of other Democratic contenders on questions concerning government spending. He insists that balancing the budget--rather than restoring desperately needed social programs--would be the priority of his administration. In last week's debate, he claimed to be "much more conservative with money than George Bush."

What originally set Dean apart from the pack was his willingness to be openly critical of the Bush White House--and of Democratic leaders in Washington who retreated without a fight from the Republican assault.

This fiery style was grounded in a campaign strategy that looked to inspire the party's base. "Our strategy is not to go to swing voters first and hope everybody else will come along," Dean said at one appearance. "The reason [youth] don't vote is because they can't tell the difference between Democrats and Republicans, and we're going to show them that there really is a difference."

This was really a matter of style, rather than substance, as a look at Dean's policy positions shows. But for many Democratic leaders whose power and influence is tied up with the party's increasingly conservative approach--from Bill Clinton's Democratic Leadership Council that led the way in pulling the Democrats to the right during the 1990s, to all the former Clinton administration officials who hop between party officialdom and lucrative gigs as lobbyists or media celebrities--Dean represented a threat. They heaped abuse on him, which helped form the false media picture of Dean as an "angry" radical.

But for every attack from a fellow Democrat, Dean hurt himself in other ways. For one thing, when he ended up the acknowledged frontrunner because of his widespread support, Dean's campaign set out to court well-known Democrats like Al Gore. Here was a candidate who won his support by insisting that the Democratic Party would have to change course and be more combative...looking for endorsements from Democrats who are as responsible as any for the party's move to the right.

"Dean's decision to surround himself with well-known politicians has muddled his message," the Los Angeles Times reported, "leaving him to condemn 'the Washington establishment' while joined on stage by some of its members."

Much has been made of the "movement" feel of Dean's campaign--because it did win such a groundswell of grassroots support outside the normal Washington channels. But the Dean campaign itself is entirely insulated from its grassroots supporters--and has made it a point to stress to the media that it hasn't been pulled by the ideas of its supporters.

By the time the new year rolled around--and many voters in Iowa and elsewhere began paying attention to the candidates for the first time--the Dean campaign was acting and sounding like the same old Washington-dominated campaign. It used its huge fundraising advantage to fill the air with negative attack ads against other candidates--while Dean himself moved to the right to defend himself.

Perhaps the true measure of Dean's "radicalism" has been his response to the talk about "electability." Rather than defend his campaign and his criticisms of the Bush administration, Dean has tried to promote a kinder, gentler image of himself, while stressing that he is the toughest fiscal conservative among the contenders. That's a far cry from what won him support in the first place.

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THE WHOLE discussion about "electability" seems weirdly distant from what people say they feel about the important political issues.

Recent opinion polls show that the Bush administration's approval ratings are split down the middle on virtually every issue--the occupation of Iraq, the economy, abortion, gay marriage. Attitudes are hardening on both sides. The Pew Research Center said in a recent report that political opinion in the U.S. is the most polarized it has ever witnessed.

In other words, people feel strongly about politics--and are feeling forced to take a side. Yet we're told that primary voters don't like Dean's "anger"--and prefer a more moderate candidate. Something doesn't add up.

One part of the explanation for this contradiction is the way that the primary season opens. As far as the media are concerned, the terms for the whole contest were set in Iowa--at a caucus with bizarrely complicated and totally undemocratic rules that involved only 20 percent of registered Democrats in a thinly populated state. Iowa is also one of the whitest states in the country--along with New Hampshire. Yet based on his showing in these two states–with the combined participation of less than 0.2 percent of the voting age population–Kerry is being anointed as the all-but-certain winner of the party nomination.

They call this a "democracy"? Where the Democrats' candidate against Bush is determined, for all intents and purposes, long before the vast majority of Democrats have a chance to vote?

This is precisely why so many people sit out elections in the U.S. They rightly feel that their vote doesn't matter much.

At the same time, for those who are taking the primaries seriously--and this includes a disproportionately large number of progressives and even radicals who have decided to go with the Democrats in 2004 in the hope of getting rid of Bush--the issue of "electability" has clearly become the main consideration.

Kerry's surge of support in Iowa and New Hampshire comes from people who don't necessarily agree with his stand on the issues--for example, his support for the congressional resolution that gave Bush the authority to go to war on Iraq.

"I've been very much pro-Dean," one New Hampshire Democrat told a Washington Post reporter. "I don't see why everyone isn't outraged like he is, and I like a show of emotion. But it all does come down to electability, and Kerry comes off as more level-headed. It's not me that has to be won over, it's all the people who voted for Bush, and all the people who are still on the fence...It's not about me anymore."

This comment seems to speak for countless Democratic voters. It represents an extension of the pessimistic logic of "lesser evilism."

At every election, we hear the argument that people who want to see real changes in the way society is run should nevertheless vote for Democratic candidates who don't share their views at all--in order to prevent the "greater evil" of a Republican victory.

The Democrats count on lesser evilism. They count on their most loyal supporters--who are miles to their left--believing that they have no other choice at election time. That frees Democratic candidates to move to the right, in the hopes of winning more votes from conservatives.

The talk about "electability" is an acknowledgement of all this--that the Democrats are likely to choose a presidential candidate that millions of the party's most loyal voters will have to hold their nose to vote for.

"The point is that it is the question which is a disaster, not the answer," the late American socialist Hal Draper wrote about lesser evilism. "In setups where the choice is between one capitalist politician and another, the defeat comes in accepting the limitation to this choice...[It] is not that the Lesser Evil is the same as the Greater Evil--this is just as nonsensical as the liberals argue it to be--but rather this: that you can't fight the victory of the rightmost forces by sacrificing your own independent strength to support elements just the next step away from them."

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