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Dems Vie for Star Slot

David Moberg

One message was clear from the first two battles of the primary season: The economy, healthcare and the war in Iraq may be big issues for voters, but the determination of many Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire to defeat Bush profoundly shaped the results. With that focus, voters lifted Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts out of a self-created slump into two strong victories that made him the clear frontrunner and seriously crippled former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s previously formidable insurgency.

The success of Kerry — and to a lesser extent Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina — also resulted from intense assaults on Dean’s electability from much of the press, conservative Democrats and the other presidential candidates except Edwards. The harsh exchange in Iowa between Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt and Dean hurt both campaigns and opened the door for a revamped Kerry and an upbeat Edwards, who eloquently denounced the two Americas,” one for the rich and the other for everyone else. Even the Rev. Al Sharpton — doing little campaigning, but advised by Republican consultant Roger Stone — hurt Dean by scolding him in the last debate in Iowa for not having blacks or Hispanics in his Vermont cabinet. Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, whose progressive campaign never caught fire, attacked Dean from the left, while Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, staking out a distinctive but obviously unpopular position on the right of the primary spectrum, did little to advance his own cause but continuously raised doubts about Dean’s viability.

Dean rhetoric raised the bar

Yet for all their attacks, Kerry and Edwards owe much of their success to Dean, who more than anyone else defined the message and the tone for the campaign. Kerry, Gephardt and Edwards, despite their initial support for the war in Iraq, became increasingly critical of Bush’s conduct of the war. Dean’s message to voters — you have the power” — and his critique of Bush and feckless Democrats pushed the other candidates toward more populist rhetoric, even to the point of borrowing his lines. Gen. Wesley Clark, for example, modified Dean’s take back America” to take America back.” 

Yet, as the other candidates adopted more of the rhetoric of class — fighting for the less privileged against powerful special interests — Dean lost ground with voters on the key issues of the economy and healthcare. Kerry beat him by a wide margin among New Hampshire voters concerned about those issues, despite Dean’s healthcare credentials and his emphasis on balancing the budget, which so far has had limited political traction.

Dean obviously hurt himself with his tendency to shoot from the lip. While many voters liked his candor, news coverage amplified his quips at the expense of substantive policy issues. The storyline” was quickly established that Dean was the angry” candidate of Bush-haters,” a line reinforced by Republicans who have taken to calling any serious criticism of Bush political hate speech.” 

On the campaign trail, however, Dean spoke with a calm, analytical demeanor, even if he was blunt and harsh in his criticism. The storyline could have been that he was the frank candidate — maybe even the passionate candidate. Indeed, Dean’s speech after the Iowa caucuses, which got more television time than any of his critiques of Bush, was more a reaction to audience enthusiasm than an angry scream.” But Dean’s slipups and his failure to craft a strong and sympathetic personal story to which people could relate clearly increased his vulnerability.

Kerry’s comeback owes much to his campaign highlighting his record as a heroic young soldier in Vietnam, a story that humanized him, giving this son of privilege an everyman appeal and reinforcing the sense that he could stand up to Bush on national security — also the key appeal of Clark. 

But 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. If electability is the issue, how did Kerry become so dramatically more electable in a matter of weeks? The capture of Saddam may have altered some voters’ calculations, and the new, improved populist message made him more appealing (as it did Edwards, who was able to expand on his more limited biographical attraction as the son of a millworker). 

Voters second-guess one another

Voters always are influenced by perceptions of a candidate’s chances of being elected. Their 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.

That’s an inherently risky guess, given that world events and public opinion can change dramatically, and it also involves placing bets on strategy. 

Edwards, for example, claims he can run well in the South, but that may be largely a dead end for Democrats except in Florida, given Tennessee native Al Gore’s 2000 performance there. How Hispanics vote in the Southwest may be more critical, given that the races there are tighter and the growing Hispanic population gives Democrats an opening. Kerry and Clark claim that their military experience inoculates them against Bush attacks on the national security issue, but Republicans have proved their willingness to question the valor and patriotism of triple-amputee veteran Max Cleland, the U.S. senator from Georgia who lost his reelection bid in 2002. Dean claims he will stand up to Bush and bring out new, formerly apathetic voters, critical to a progressive strategy but difficult to execute. Lieberman essentially says Republicans can’t attack him on taxes, values and the war in Iraq because he is much like them on these issues.

Taking a positive stand

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, despite his awkward style, in appealing to class interests that bring together black and white voters. Democrats can also be proactive by attacking corporate abuses of power, as Dean, Edwards, Kucinich and Kerry all have done to varying degrees.

The goal in politics is — or ought to be — not just winning but defining what needs to be done, then developing a strategy to win majority support for those objectives. After his second-place finish in New Hampshire, Dean said that in the next primaries he would focus not just on defeating Bush but on changing the country.

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 their 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.

David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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