A disastrous Republican administration in the White House. A varied field of Democratic candidates, ranging from a Vermont progressive who opposed the Iraq War to a more moderate frontrunner who voted to authorize it. A mobilized progressive base torn between the desire for ambitious policies and the need to win the general election.
We speak, of course, of 2004, and the Democratic campaign to unseat President George W. Bush. Writing in the magazine after Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) won the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, In These Times’ David Moberg argued that “intense assaults” on the electability of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, then running as a progressive, helped pave the way for Kerry’s success:
[Voters’] desire to be with a winner certainly helps Kerry, especially since at least one Newsweek poll just before the New Hampshire primary showed him beating Bush by a small margin. Primary voters this year have often sounded more like professional campaign strategists than citizens picking leaders who champion their issues. In that way the Democratic primary resembles economist John Maynard Keynes’ description of stock markets. Rather than picking a company based on its intrinsic merits, Keynes argued, the successful stock-picker guesses which stock is most likely to be picked by other people. In the primary, voters are partly deciding not on the basis of which candidate they like but on whom they believe a majority of Americans will like next November.
Moberg himself was disinclined to take this sort of risk, warning that “supporting a candidate because he is ‘electable’ is a coolly calculated and ephemeral political commitment. Any passion for Kerry, for example, seems to come less for the man himself than that he represents a vehicle to defeat Bush.” This lack of passion, Moberg argued, could hinder Kerry’s chances:
Electability arguments too often are framed defensively — how a particular Democratic candidate can withstand divisive Republican appeals on religion and conservative values, military toughness, gun ownership and cutting taxes. But the best defense may be a strong offense. Candidates on the offensive have a chance of defining the debate — as Dean did on the war and … in appealing to class interests that bring together black and white voters. Democrats can also be proactive by attacking corporate abuses of power. … [Many] New Hampshire voters said they backed the candidate who most stands up for what he believes in — and Dean won their support over Kerry by more than a 2‑to‑1 margin. But Kerry overwhelmingly won [the] vote when it came to electability. One-fifth of voters said they backed the candidate who could best defeat George Bush — a margin Kerry won almost 6‑to‑1 over Dean. With electability looming so large, the odds favor victory by the candidate who best can stand up to Bush. Although Kerry was on a roll, many Democrats still did not have a clear idea of what he stands for — and his early victories do not prove he is that candidate.