Saturday, December 6, 2003

Kristof [sigh]

Nick Kristof dredges up the old Democrats-Can’t-Win arguments again. I guess originality is not his strong suit.

It is, of course, the Democrats’ privilege to stand on principle, embrace the man they admire most and leap off a cliff together. Political parties have a hoary tradition of committing principled suicide, as the G.O.P. did with Barry Goldwater in 1964 and, most masochistically, the Democrats did three times with William Jennings Bryan from 1896 to 1908.

Yet my guess is that the Democratic faithful are being not so much high-minded as muddle-headed. Many Democrats so despise President Bush that they don’t appreciate what a strong candidate he will be in November, and they don’t grasp how poorly Mr. Dean is likely to fare in battleground states.


Against the Bush juggernaut, Mr. Dean faces three disadvantages.

First, geography. The only Democrats who have won the popular presidential vote since John Kennedy took office (when the Southern boom started) have all been Southerners: Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Swing states are mostly in the South and Midwest, so the key for both parties is to find a candidate who can seduce “Reagan Democrats,” like Ohio steelworkers and Tennessee tobacco farmers. Not another Michael Dukakis.

But Dean is not Dukakis, who was barely audible on the stump and didn’t make an effort to reach out to “Reagan Democrats” (he assumed they’d come to their senses on their own). Dean is reaching out to them – even the goof on the Confederate flag issue shows he’s making an effort, however awkwardly. And the idea that the only successful Democrat will come from the South is reverse bigotry: if the rest of the country can accept a candidate who “talks funny,” why can’t the South, especially when the questions are health care, the economy, and leadership?

Second, style. Angry bluster rouses the party faithful, but it frightens centrists. The last two presidents who were fervently hated, Richard Nixon and Mr. Clinton, both won two terms; today’s liberal disgust could do the same for Mr. Bush by leading to a nominee like Mr. Dean, who warms the hearts of the party’s core but leaves others cold. Furious liberals already bear some responsibility for the situation because enough of them voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 to sink Al Gore.

Not that shit again. How many times do we have to say it…Nader didn’t lose it for Gore. And Kristof has apparently never seen Dean on the stump – he’s relying on news reports for the “angry bluster” canard.

Moreover, Mr. Dean is smart, but he knows it. America’s heartland oozes suspicion of Eastern elitists, and Mr. Dean’s cockiness would exacerbate that suspicion. President Clinton oozed charm and was fluent in Southern (“even a blind hog can find an acorn,” he’d say scornfully), while Mr. Dean needs a Berlitz course in self-deprecating folksiness.


You get the feeling that if Mr. Dean and Mr. Bush were stuck together in a small Missouri town, Mr. Dean would lecture farmers about Thomas Paine’s writings, while Mr. Bush would have the cafe crowd in stitches by doing impersonations of Mr. Dean.

Okay, someone’s been watching The West Wing too much. And tell me that Bush’s “folksiness” isn’t an act? Yeah, they really talk like hicks at Andover, Yale, and Harvard.

The third problem is biography. Mr. Dean may be the one Democrat who is even more blue-blooded than Mr. Bush and who has an even lamer excuse for dodging Vietnam. Mr. Dean grew up on Park Avenue in an old aristocratic family, and after getting his medical deferment from the draft, he moved to Aspen to ski. Unlike other politicians, Mr. Dean doesn’t even pretend to be particularly religious, and that’s a major political weakness in the battleground states.

Hold it. Dean’s “lamer excuse for dodging Vietnam” at least has the backing (no pun intended) of the United States Army physical examination. And Dean wasn’t AWOL for … how long? As for the religious aspect, the Religious Reich is lost to the Democrats right off, and the last presidential election where the candidate’s religious faith was a genuine issue was in 1960. Jimmy Carter may have been a born-again Christian, but he didn’t turn his administration over to the Taliban, and Bill Clinton was a church-going Baptist. ‘Nuff said.

The biggest danger is that both Democrats and Republicans will follow Kristof’s line of thinking. If the Democrats ignore the lessons of Mondale and Dukakis and assume that the electorate will realize in their hearts that they should vote for their man, they will lose – The Republicans tried that with Goldwater in 1964: “In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right.” The Democrats have the chance to win if they make the case that it isn’t geography, style, or biography that runs the country – it’s competence, intelligence, and the willingness to go out there and fight for what they believe.

Update: Thanks to spine’s comment in Dohiyi Mir, I read this in Talking Points Memo. It’s a great counterargument to Kristof.