How Dean Could Win – But Won’t

William Kristol has an interesting piece in the Post on how Howard Dean could win in 2004. Certainly Bush isn’t a shoe-in, and it will be a tough fight. Here’s what Kristol says:

Could Dean really win? Unfortunately, yes. The Democratic presidential candidate has, alas, won the popular presidential vote three times in a row — twice, admittedly, under the guidance of the skilled Bill Clinton, but most recently with the hapless Al Gore at the helm. And demographic trends (particularly the growth in Hispanic voters) tend to favor the Democrats going into 2004.

But surely the fact that Bush is now a proven president running for reelection changes everything? Sort of. Bush is also likely to be the first president since Herbert Hoover under whom there will have been no net job creation, and the first since Lyndon Johnson whose core justification for sending U.S. soldiers to war could be widely (if unfairly) judged to have been misleading

I believe the economy will continue to produce jobs over the next few months negating the economic vulnerabilities Bush currently faces. I also think the security situation in Iraq will stabilize, also negating that line of attack. Without those two key issues, the Democrats will have little to campaign on. Kondracke also mentions something else that I believe will be a negative for Dean:

And how liberal is Dean anyway? He governed as a centrist in Vermont, and will certainly pivot to the center the moment he has the nomination. And one underestimates, at this point when we are all caught up in the primary season, how much of an opportunity the party’s nominee has to define or redefine himself once he gets the nomination.

Dean has to jag to the center after the primary season. He cannot play the angry liberal card for the general election. His angry liberal attitude plays very well to other angry liberals, and that is what is driving his campaign. However, if you don’t see George W. Bush as the living embodiment of everything that is bad in the world from nuclear warfare to people who talk in the theater, there’s not much yet that would make you want to vote for Dean. Right now Dean’s campaign is essentially a one-note campaign of Bush bashing. It’s the right one note to play, and Dean plays it far louder and far clearer than the rest, but it still isn’t enough to get him far in the general election.

And that is Dean’s problem. When he does go to the center, how many of the radical left will follow him? Undoubtedly most of them will, but if Dean starts saying he’s for war, will the diehard ANSWER/MoveOn pacifist left start to balk? What about when Dean is forced to flip-flop on tax cuts? He can’t maintain a position that increasing taxes on the lower tax brackets is a politically or economically smart idea. What about when Dean’s radicalism has to be tempered by the need to appeal to a wider audience. That kind of transitition isn’t trivial, and Dean is not going to have an easy time making it, and in so doing he will either alienate some of his base or appear to be wildly inconsistent in his views.

Dean’s in a lose-lose situation politically. Either he maintains the angry liberal attitude and takes the risk that it will not be enough or he swings to the center and comes under attack from both sides. Dean has a very impressive campaign, and he won’t go down as hard as McGovern did and lose 49 states. However, that political momentum can’t last forever, especially against a President who has the benefits of incumbancy, a huge war chest, Karl Rove’s political genius, and a stance on issues far more popular than Dean’s liberal elitism. Dean will be a challenge, but Dean’s brand of angry liberalism may play well to the Democratic faithful, but it will turn off the moderates and swing voters a candidate needs to win.

UPDATE: William Kristol was the author of the piece, not Mort Kondracke. I seem to be getting my Beltway Boys confused again. Although Kondracke does have an article in Roll Call that agrees with my analysis of Dean’s electoral chances that’s well worth reading as well.

5 thoughts on “How Dean Could Win – But Won’t

  1. “Dean’s in a lose-lose situation politically. Either he maintains the angry liberal attitude and takes the risk that it will not be enough or he swings to the center and comes under attack from both sides.”

    Once again, completely missing the point that the column was making, which is that Dean ISN’T the “angry liberal” that he’s been painted as, and could in fact be a force to be reckoned with (and is certainly not a challenge to be taken lightly).

    But I’m glad to see your full critical powers of appraisal are upon this article…although you credited the wrong author. Mort Kondrake? Kristol, baby…Kristol.

  2. I know you probably don’t spend too much time on the Blog for America, Dean’s official blog. But there was something interesting that happened the other night on the blog that you might want to consider. Dean released a statement in support of continuing the steel tariffs in order to help the steel industry. The comment thread below that post was filled with well over a hundred individual comments, all from professed Dean supporters, that resoundingly disagreed with Gov. Dean. Most were in fact arguing that the tariffs should never have been put in place to begin with.

    That episode demonstrates two facts about the Dean camp that are frequently overlooked and should be considered: 1.) the vast majority of Dean supporters already know where they do and don’t agree with Governor Dean and 2.) they still support him despite their differences.

    For anyone that still clings to the notion that Dean only attacks Bush and does not propose policies of his own would do well to read some of these articulated policies:

    Foreign Policy

    Economic and Trade Policy


    Just to name a few. My advice is to stop trying to paint Dean as a Bush-basher (he is) with no policies of his own, and start painting him as a Bush-basher with flawed policy ideas. He’s the presumptive nominee–the Republicans would do well to start treating him as such, or at least line up their guns for when he’s got it locked up. If he starts campaigning with a “Shadow Government” strategy, offering a specific counter to every disagreeable Bush proposal, he’ll blow the “Bush Basher” tag out of the water, and it will damage the credibility of those that said he had nothing new to offer.

    But take my advice with a large Machiavellian grain of salt–after all, Dean’s got my vote.

  3. The fact is that Howard Dean’s candidacy isn’t fueled by his policy positions. It is fueled by visceral hatred of Bush. His policies, such as they are, are indeed deeply flawed and completely untenable. The fact is that Dean still is stuck in the same situation – if he runs against Bush as he has he earns the angry liberal badge. If he runs on those set of policies he runs on a tax-and-spend liberal platform. (Although I do like the idea of returning to pay-as-you-go budgeting, although his platform is wrong about the expiration date. The BEA expired on September 30, 2002, not 2001.)

    That’s his problem – run as an angry liberal, lose the swing voters. Run as a moderate, lose the angry liberals. Either way, Dean is not an electable candidate.

  4. “That’s his problem – run as an angry liberal, lose the swing voters. Run as a moderate, lose the angry liberals. Either way, Dean is not an electable candidate.”

    Even if he does dash to the center (which I think is his plan), I don’t think the angry liberals will abandon him so quickly this time. Even as a moderate, he’s much more firey and appealing than Gore to that demographic, and with much of the Nader/Green apparatus eaten up by Dean and the democratic field, we’re probably going to be seeing a very different election from 2000.

    In any event, I doubt I’d support Dean in the general election anyway- I’ll be voting in South Dakota, so there’s little point in voting for a dem for president to begin with- I’ll vote for whoever the Libertarians put forth as a protest against both candidates. 😛

    (Then again, Wesley Clark isn’t done for yet…)

  5. Plus, what fuels his PRIMARY campaign really won’t matter past around March 1st. At that point, if Dean’s emerged as the nominee, he simply has to turn his expansive and soon-to-be enormous (for a Dem) war chest not onto Bush, but onto himself, making for himself whatever profile he wishes. Politicians have great flexibility when it comes to defining themselves, especially politicos with no real national record to speak of (remember that “compassionate conservative” from 2000? or that “practical idealist?”)

    If Dean pulls off the nomination by or on Super Tuesday, then the issue of his personal image will become fairly moot. People will read about one of those insane leftist postitions–like a balanced budget, states’ rights on gun control, continued democratization in Iraq or lessening our dependence on foreign oil–and they’ll start to wonder who exactly told them that Dean was a left-wing radical.

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