The Case for Enthusiasm Over “Electability”—Or, Why We Don’t Need Another John Kerry.

“Electability” didn’t work in 2004 and it won’t work now.

In These Times EditorsAugust 6, 2019

(Photo by Alex Wong via Getty Images)

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.

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.

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.

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