Fair. Balanced. American.

Friday, August 29, 2003

How Dean Can Win: A Response to the Naysayers (Part 2 of 4)

(Read Part 1)

I'll resume with the second of Ruy Teixeira's claims about the assumptions made by Dean supporters. Here's what Teixeira writes:
Assumption #2: Dean’s antiwar stance will not hurt him; in fact, it’ll help him, now that Iraq has evolved into a seemingly intractable mess and the public is starting to wonder whether the whole adventure was worth the costs.  Dean’s been consistently against the war, while the other candidates, like Kerry, have not and voters will reward that consistency.

Problem #2: Voters do not necessarily reward consistency.  They reward those who seem to represent their view of the world and what needs to be done.  The fact of the matter is that Kerry’s ambivalence-but-reluctant-support of the Iraq war more fairly represented the public’s view of the war going in than did Dean’s intransigent opposition and Kerry’s  current move from ambivalence toward a critique of Bush’s approach also fairly represents how the public mood is evolving.  So the inconsistent Kerry is probably in a much better position than the consistent Dean to capture the moderate voters who are becoming disaffected with the war’s aftermath, as well as the administration’s mendacity.  And don’t forget: Kerry’s war hero status does matter and will help allay moderate voters’ fears that a critique of Bush comes from Democratic softness on national security, not from a realistic, tough-minded appraisal of what it’ll take to beat terrorists and keep America safe.

This is a good point, and it feels right. But I don't understand how it plays out to Kerry's advantage. One can imagine how Republicans will easily portray Kerry's inconsistency negatively, as indecisiveness and opportunism. More difficult to imagine, for me at least, is how one plays up the "ambivalence but-reluctant-support" angle in a way that voters respond to and that showcases the strength of the candidate (rather than a weakness).

Furthermore, Kerry may be the veteran, but does he act the veteran? Remember, Dukakis was a veteran too, but he didn't look or act the part enough. So was former Rep. Max Cleland, a Democrat who supported the war but whom the GOP sent packing by equating him with Saddam in a TV ad. I worry that Kerry's aloofness may overwhelm his military credentials. I hope I'm wrong.

Similarly, Jonathan Chait talks about the need to solve the Democratic party's "national security credibility problem." Chait writes:
This isn't to say Democrats can't attack Bush's foreign policy, only that they must do so from a standpoint of toughness. Several Democrats, for example, have criticized Bush's failure to plan for occupying and rebuilding Iraq. Edwards and Lieberman have attacked Bush's refusal to provide adequate funding for homeland security. Dean's critique, however, is decidedly dovish. In a foreign policy speech last month, he called on the United States to "lead by example, not by force." In April, he said, "We've gotten rid of [Saddam Hussein], and I suppose that's a good thing." And, in an April op-ed, he criticized the administration for "imposing our will on sovereign nations."

First, Chait has misconstrued Dean's words and chosen an unrepresentative sample of Dean's statements. The very points on which he quotes Lieberman and Edwards (no doubt Chait's favorite candies), have also been made by Dean. He says straightforwardly and repeatedly that he supports other military interventions and that we need to increase our troop strength in Iraq. Dean speaks forcefully about the need to confront the Saudis on their role in supporting terrorism. Furthermore, what Chait calls Dean's "decidedly dovish" foreign policy - which stresses the importance of nurturing international alliances and being truthful with the American people - is remarkably similar to that of Gen. Wesley Clark, who led NATO forces to victory in Kosovo and could hardly be considered a dove.

Second, I agree that a candidate's appearance on national security is going to matter. Americans don't usually worry about foreign policy in the voting booths. Since Sept. 11, of course, they will - especially when Republicans raise the issue (and televise the right images) over and over again. But if the economy is bad enough, that will matter too. In an August 12 CBS News poll, almost four times as many people identified the economy as "the most important problem facing this country today" as did terrorism or Iraq.

The real question is not whether Dean (or Edwards, or some of the others too) will get hit with national security questions. They will. To echo Teixeira, the real question is what he can do to beef up an image as commander-in-chief. If he wins the nomination, Dean would be smart to seek out support from Army leaders who want Donald Rumsfeld booted from the Pentagon, as would any other Democrat. Discontent has been brewing among troops, higher-ups, and the Army press, and it's waiting to be tapped by the Democrats. If Dean held a press conference with a phalanx of Army generals endorsing him, the way Sini reminds us that Clinton did with Admiral Crowe, that would take him a big part of the way.

PART 3, on Dean's rhetoric and appeal, coming Tuesday ...

UPDATE: Read Part 3.

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