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Thursday, August 28, 2003

How Dean Can Win: A Response to the Naysayers


Last month, the cover of the The New Republic asked this about Howard Dean: "Must he be stopped?" It had the ring of an exclamation more than a question. Critics from his own party, like TNR's Jonathan Chait and the Democratic Leadership Council's Al From and Bruce Reed, have railed against Howard Dean, arguing that a Dean candidacy would guarantee George Bush a landslide reelection. (Jonathan Cohn wrote a dissenting view for TNR.) Chait wrote that Dean "has come to represent a political delusion: that on every issue Democrats have a moral and strategic obligation to oppose Bush diametrically. This delusion could enfeeble the Democratic Party in 2004, whether or not it makes Dean its nominee." Chait and the DLC are wrong, and their distaste for Dean blinds them to the strengths of a Dean candidacy.

Donkey Rising's Ruy Teixeira, on the other hand, is skeptical of Dean but retains an open mind. Teixeira says Dean has significant weaknesses that his supporters ignore. Frankly, I think he's right. I've been struck by the naivete of some of the claims made by Dean supporters. But the case for Dean or against him shouldn't depend on the testaments of true believers, just as it shouldn't depend on the desperate claims of defensive rivals.

Hoping to goad his readers into a constructive dialogue, Teixeira writes, "Let the debate continue!" I second that motion.

What first piqued my interest in Dean wasn't his stance against war in Iraq. It was the fact that he was a governor (the only one in the race at the time) and that he had a reputation for being pro-gun. I'm no gun freak - far from it. But together these two simple facts fascinated me: here was a Democratic candidate who had liberal instincts but was at the same time an outsider -- to Washington (as a governor), and to his own party (on the gun position). I've long believed that the outsider element is important to winning the presidency, particularly for Democrats. An outsider can run effectively against the worst of Washington and against the worst stereotypes of his own party. As Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democrat Network put it: "This race isn't about left and right in any case. ... It's about insider and outsider. Dean has lucked into being the only credible outsider." (The NDN acts as the DLC's political action committee, although the two organizations have apparently drifted apart on Dean.)

I don't know how many Dean supporters began that way. However, Teixeira boils the support for Dean down to three assumptions, each of which he says is mistaken. Teixeira might be right in his descriptions of many Dean supporters he's seen writing on the web, but he's not entirely right about Dean himself. Here are Teixeira's words, in which he describes the first assumption and the problem he sees with it:
Assumption #1: Dean’s association with liberal social issues like gay marriage won’t hurt him much—or, at least any more than any other Democrat will be hurt by social liberalism--because he is conservative on other social issues (guns, death penalty).  Anyway, the country is becoming more liberal on issues concerning gays (witness the recent Supreme Court decision), so Dean won’t seem nearly so out-of-step as a lot of commentators think.

Problem #1: Yes, all Democrats, including nominal front-runner Kerry, will have to battle social liberalism critiques and hit jobs if nominated.  But that’s exactly why you don’t want to present too much of an easy target and Dean does, due to not only the specific issue of gay marriage (still a bridge too far for most of the public, as opposed to legalizing gay sex, which they support), but also his geographic origins and the general profile of his candidacy.

Actually, Dean, like most of the other Democratic candies, doesn't support gay marriage. He opposes it. Like most of them, he does support civil unions, a route he chose explicitly when he signed the bill in Vermont. What I want to know (like MyDD) is how Dean will make an easier target than Kerry, who states publicly that he also supports civil unions.

Does anyone really believe the GOP is going to give Kerry or the other Democrats a free pass on gay marriage just because they say they oppose it? The GOP will do their damnedest to equate the two, saying that civil unions is code for gay marriage - especially given the Supreme Court's Lawrence ruling and Canada's movement toward gay marriage - and any Democrat will try equally hard to refute it.

A crucial factor in any candidate's chances - on any issue, not just this one - is going to be whether or not he can overcome powerful Republican efforts to paint things the way they want them to be seen, to say forthrightly and simply where he stands, and to echo James Carville, combat their thuggery. I have doubts about Kerry's ability to communicate the necessary counter-attacks, given his long-winded and aloof style. Al Gore had a similar problem; he lost the South, and he was from the South. Edwards and Gephardt are positioned than Dean to take advantage of economic discontent in South Carolina. But, since they are the darlings of lawyers and of labor, respectively, the GOP will try to hit them hard in those areas.

Even if the South resists Dean (as it probably would Kerry too, although we would expect it to be slightly more open to Clark or Edwards), the midwest could very well remain in play, as Sini has argued. Dean's pressing a strong rural agenda, and he knows how to talk to Midwesterners.

The impact that civil unions will have on the election depends on the Democratic nominee's ability to frame them as an issue of equal rights rather than social decay. At a campaign appearance in Iowa, Dean demonstrated how he's going to do it. A woman concerned about the issue brought it up with him after his speech. Dean told her about an 80-year old veteran he had met who had fought in World War II: the man had thanked Dean for the civil unions bill, and said he was gay. If America could deny someone like that the same rights as other people, Dean said, then it wasn't the kind of country he thought it was. If anyone can frame gay rights the right way, it's him.

Teixeira asks, "Can Dean reinvent himself?" In fact, no reinvention will be necessary, just reintroduction, and hardly even that. Most Americans still haven't heard of him. And Dean won't be alone in introducing himself: the closer the primaries get, the more the other Democrats will help portray him as a moderate. Kucinich, Kerry, and Gephardt are all to his left in one way or another. When asked if he's a liberal, Dean always replies that if balancing budgets and putting aside money for a rainy-day fund makes him a liberal, then, yes, he is. On his Today Show appearance, he pronounced with stunning confidence: "I am the center." Dean's consistent theme is that the GOP has moved too far to the right. (He should take up Kevin Phillip's call to action and further paint Bush as beholden to religious fanatics.)


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