Bitter Pill

The New Republic

You have read:

0 / 8

free articles in the past 30 days.

Already a subscriber?

Log in here

sign up for unlimited access for just $34.97Sign me up

JULY 28, 2003

Bitter Pill

Presumably, Karl Rove had no reason to believe his views would wind
up in the press when he attended a Washington, D.C., Fourth of July
parade as a spectator earlier this month. But, as a dozen
supporters of Vermont Governor Howard Dean marched by, an
environmental consultant named Daniel J. Weiss happened to overhear
what Rove told a companion and relayed the powerful Bush adviser's
commentary to The Washington Post. According to Weiss, Rove said,
"Heh, heh, heh. Yeah, that's the one we want," and then cheered on
the Dean marchers: "Come on, everybody! Go, Howard Dean!"Rove is not the only Bush loyalist cackling with joy at Dean's rise
from long-shot to spoiler to top-tier candidate. In recent weeks,
The Wall Street Journal editorial page, The Weekly Standard, and
National Review Online--none of which have the best interests of
the Democratic Party at heart--have all published articles gloating
over the prospects of a Dean candidacy. ("Bring on Deano," urged a
piece by the Standard's Fred Barnes.) Of course, the collective
political judgment of the conservative movement is not infallible.
There may even be times when Rove himself misjudges President
Bush's political interest. This, however, is not one of those
times.

The glee Dean inspires among Republicans is exceeded only by that of
his supporters. He has attracted a cultlike following, similar to
that of John McCain or Ross Perot, although it is largely confined
to liberals. Dean is soaring mainly because he has tapped into the
intense anger Democrats feel toward Bush. But, in this case, anger
has gotten the better of reason. Democrats' justified desperation
to unseat Bush may, paradoxically, render them less able to do so.
The trouble is not Dean himself (he is a decent man) nor even
necessarily how he might govern (more responsibly than some would
think). It's that he 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.

The heart of Dean's appeal is his audacious claim that he, alone,
has the guts to criticize Bush. "I think that, for too long,
Democrats have been afraid to take on the president," he told
National Public Radio in March. "The only hope Democrats have to
beat this president," he told a Los Angeles rally earlier this
month, "is to behave like Democrats and stand up for what we
believe." Liberals not only find this talk cathartic, they believe
it holds the key to victory. As actor Alec Baldwin told a Newsweek
reporter, "I want to know who's the person who's going to take it
to Bush. We've got to get rid of this guy."

The fallacy underlying Dean's argument is that Democrats in
Washington have gone along with Bush's policies rather than resist
them. "We are not going to beat George Bush by voting with the
president eighty-five percent of the time," he likes to say. Dean
seems to be implying that his opponents supported Bush that often,
but actually Kerry, Edwards, and Lieberman all had presidential
support rates in the sixties and seventies. And even that
dramatically overstates their agreement, since many of those
votes--say, election reform or defense reauthorization--were,
properly, uncontroversial. Most congressional Democrats have held
fast in opposition to Bush's conservative agenda. On postEnron
reforms, the patients' bill of rights, campaign finance reform,
homeland security spending, judicial nominations, oil-drilling in
Alaska, and other issues, they have formed a fairly unified bloc.
Most of the time, though, Republicans have rolled right over
Democratic opposition. That's the way things tend to go when one
party controls the presidency and both houses of Congress.

Why, then, do so many Democrats believe their party has acceded to
Bush's policies? The main reason is that, in addition to lacking
power, Democrats lack an effective way to disseminate their ideas.
As Michael Crowley described recently in these pages ("Oppressed
Minority," June 23), Democrats in the House are often unable even
to bring their own alternative legislation up for a vote. In the
Senate, they face a Republican majority only slightly less
disciplined. The fact that Democrats wield so little power means
the media has little reason to pay attention to their ideas. A
proposal by the president or the majority leader of the House or
Senate is, by definition, newsworthy. A proposal by a minority
leader in Congress, setting out a position that has no chance of
being enacted into law, is not. In press conferences throughout
2001 and 2002, Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt fiercely denounced
Bush's domestic agenda on a near- daily basis and proposed
alternative policies. But few people are in the habit of obtaining
press-conference transcripts, so almost nobody knew the Democrats
even had an alternative agenda.

Why didn't Republicans have this problem when they were in the
minority in Congress? For one thing, they had the megaphone of the
White House for 19 of the 25 years preceding their takeover of
Congress in 1995. For another, they built a network of journalists
and radio entertainers to spread their message to the conservative
faithful. During the Clinton years, Democratic control of the
presidency offset this GOP advantage. Now, with Republicans
occupying the bully pulpit, Democrats lack any such method of
communicating with their base. The result, as pollster Charlie Cook
has written in National Journal, is "a strong vein of
disillusionment with the current leadership and direction of the
Democratic Party." Dean likes to point out that "Democrats are
almost as angry at the Democratic Party as they are at the
Republican Party." And he has turned that anger against his primary
foes, whom he derides as "Bush lite."

At the outset of his campaign, Dean cited several areas where he
felt Democrats were failing to challenge Bush sufficiently. The
first was health care, where Democrats proposed tinkering with the
system--say, by adding prescription drugs to Medicare--rather than
sweeping reform. "What I want to know," Dean asked at the
Democratic National Committee winter meeting, "is why we're
fighting in Congress about the patients' bill of rights when the
Democratic Party ought to be standing up for health care for every
single American man, woman, and child in this country." It's hardly
surprising, though, that Democrats in Congress would focus on
small, achievable efforts rather than a grand, alternative agenda
that has no chance of passing under a Republican president. Since
they began fleshing out their presidential campaigns, some of
Dean's fellow candidates have since developed far-reaching health
plans. John Kerry's, for example, is very similar to Dean's; Dick
Gephardt's is considerably larger and more ambitious.

Second, Dean says Democrats have acquiesced in Bush's radical
tax-cutting or, at best, merely presented a paler version thereof.
"What I want to know is what in the world so many Democrats are
doing supporting tax cuts," he often says. There is a grain of
truth here. Nearly all congressional Democrats supported small,
temporary tax cuts targeted at the middle class and poor.
Economically, this made good Keynesian sense: Such cuts would give a
short-term jolt to the economy yet, due to their temporary nature,
wouldn't create huge long-term deficits. Politically, it was smart
as well, because it allowed Democrats to co-opt the popular
elements of Bush's plan--giving middle-class workers a tax cut
during a recession--while opposing the giant, regressive long- term
tax cut that came along with it.

But, if Dean thinks a temporary, progressive tax cut during a
recession is a bad idea, he hasn't explained why. Rather, he has
gone out of his way to make audiences believe that most Democrats
supported some slightly weaker version of the Bush tax cuts, which
is not true. Yes, a few unprincipled or short-sighted
Democrats--this means you, John Breaux and Max Baucus--decided a tax
cut was going to happen regardless and wanted credit for helping
dish out the goodies. Because the Senate is so closely split, even
a couple of Democratic defections ensured that substantial tax cuts
would pass. This put the rest of the party in the uncomfortable
position of having to support bad tax cuts in order to hold the
center against even worse ones. For example, Dean attacks Senators
Kerry, John Edwards, and Joe Lieberman for supporting a $350
billion tax cut earlier this year. But these votes took place after
a majority of the Senate had already decided to cut taxes by at
least $350 billion. To vote against the $350 billion tax cut was to
vote for the larger, $726 billion tax cut Bush had initially
proposed.

It's true that, leading up to the 2002 elections, Democratic leaders
in Congress refrained from advocating a repeal of the Bush tax cuts
in deference to their colleagues in conservative swing districts.
(In a 2002 Gallup poll, two-thirds of respondents opposed
postponing, let alone repealing, the tax cut. ) But, again, all of
Dean's opponents have since called for repealing either all the
Bush tax cuts or at least the largest and most regressive portions.

The primary distinction between Dean and his competitors is Dean's
opposition to the war against Iraq. And, here, Dean is factually
correct: His most prominent opponents either supported the war
outright (Edwards, Gephardt, Lieberman) or equivocated (Kerry).
Where Dean goes wrong is in suggesting that his antiwar position
will help him beat President Bush. In truth, it's a massive
liability.

Dean and his supporters simply fail to face up to the unpleasant
fact that the Democratic Party has a national security credibility
problem that, if not solved, will be politically fatal. Since at
least Vietnam, the public has consistently trusted Republicans more
on defense. If Al Gore had happened to be president on September
11, 2001, and therefore benefited from the national desire to see
the president as a strong leader, then perhaps the gap would have
narrowed. But Bush was president, and the upsurge he enjoyed has
made the security gap larger and more salient than ever. When asked
which party can better defend against terrorism, the public
consistently gives the GOP an enormous edge. If Democrats cannot
whittle away at this gap, they face an insuperable obstacle to
winning the presidency, however unpopular or unsuccessful Bush's
domestic policies may be.

Dean points out that his opposition to war in Iraq does not mean he
opposes the use of force in all instances. This, however, would be
unlikely to help him in the general election. The main problem for
Dean is not that the public is so supportive of the war in Iraq
specifically but, rather, that it abhors any politician who smacks
of weakness against foreign enemies generally. Even in the unlikely
event that most voters conclude the Iraq war was a mistake, the
broader resonance of Dean's antiwar position will still hurt him. As
my colleague Lawrence F. Kaplan pointed out in a recent Wall Street
Journal op-ed, the unpopularity of the Vietnam War hardly made
George McGovern's dovishness more politically successful.

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." While concern for other nations'
sovereignty certainly matters, in an era of acute national security
fears it is exactly what most Americans don't want their president
to be overly concerned about. Kerry, by contrast, has in at least
one instance attacked Bush for violating another country's
sovereignty insufficiently, decrying the administration's failure
to use ground troops at Tora Bora in Afghanistan, which enabled
Osama bin Laden to escape.

Nearly as problematic is Dean's implacable opposition to the Patriot
Act. Dean regularly attacks his opponents for having supported the
anti-terrorist measure opposed by many civil libertarians.
Unsurprisingly, Dean again glosses over the political nuances--in
this case, that congressional critics managed to weaken the bill,
not least by including sunset provisions. Combined with his antiwar
stance, Dean's opposition to the Patriot Act could be politically
lethal in a general election. For years, Republicans painted
Democrats as civil- libertarian purists unconcerned with fighting
crime. (Witness George H. W. Bush's 1988 attack on Michael Dukakis
as a "card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union.")
Crime may not have much political salience today, but terrorism
certainly does. Whatever the merits of Dean's absolutist position,
from a pragmatic standpoint he is once again walking into a GOP
attack ad while flaying his opponents for failing to do the same.

Dean and his supporters portray his embrace of unpopular positions
as a political virtue. "The only way to beat this president is to
stand up to him and stop being afraid of him and stop focusing your
position base on polls and focus groups and things like that," Dean
told The New York Times last week. Candidates ranging from Barry
Goldwater to Jerry Brown have made some version of this argument,
and it remains an article of faith among activists on the right and
left. Its appeal lies in its irresistible hope that philosophical
ideals need never be tainted by pragmatic compromise. But it
requires a willful blindness to political history. For instance, if
it's true that a Democratic candidate can win merely by standing
firm for his principles and exciting the faithful, then it ought to
be true of Republican candidates as well. As Dean's campaign
manager, Joe Trippi, argued on a pro-Dean Web log, "Victory for the
Republicans requires nothing more than an energized base--and that
is all Bush and Rove are doing every day. Every move they make is
aimed at one thing-- energizng [sic] their base--and nothing
more."

That's nonsense. Even a casual reading of Bush's presidency makes
clear that, from the beginning, he has compromised conservative
purity in order to court swing votes. His compromises range from
the purely symbolic (calling himself a "compassionate
conservative") to the largely symbolic (agreeing to spend slightly
more money on education) to the substantive (imposing steel tariffs
and agreeing to a Medicare prescription-drug benefit). If there were
a Dean in the GOP right now, he would be attacking Bush as "Daschle
lite" and telling the party faithful that the best way for the
president to be reelected would be to oppose prescription-drug
benefits and angrily denounce the Supreme Court's rulings on sodomy
and affirmative action.

When they're not arguing that only Dean is liberal enough to
energize the Democratic base, his backers insist he's actually not
that liberal. There is some truth to this. He supported the death
penalty and likes to tout his "A" rating from the National Rifle
Association. "Get the gun issue off the table," he said at a
political rally last year. "It cost Al Gore three states--and the
presidency." (Whether or not this is true, it's unclear why Dean
finds it morally and strategically acceptable to co-opt a popular
GOP position on gun control but not on going to war with Iraq.)

The remaining evidence of Dean's ability to capture the political
center is pretty flimsy. Some have noted that he often disappointed
liberals as governor of Vermont. But, needless to say, the
threshold of ideological moderation required to disappoint Vermont
liberals is quite low. As Peter Beinart noted in these pages ("The
Big Debate," March 16, 1998), Texas conservatives, who reside about
as far from the national center as Vermont liberals, frequently
opposed Bush during his governorship--a testament to their
off-the-charts radicalism, not his centrism. Dean also likes to
present his oft-professed support for balanced budgets as a sign of
ideological heterodoxy. It's true that Dean governed Vermont as a
true fiscal tightwad. He seems to forget that Walter Mondale
advocated tax increases and spending cuts to reduce the deficit
before losing a landslide race in 1984. That Dean is willing to do
the same suggests admirable courage. But it hardly speaks to his
electability.

Dean's heterodoxy on guns and the death penalty would not help him
in a general-election race because most voters don't carefully
examine each candidate's individual positions. Instead, they take a
broad measure of the man. And Dean has already defined himself as
the spokesman for the left wing of the Democratic Party. His
supporters may thrill to the fact that he openly calls himself a
"social liberal," but there's a reason so few politicians embrace
that term: Only 17 percent of Americans identify themselves as
liberal, as opposed to 40 percent moderate and 35 percent
conservative. And, having publicly branded himself a liberal, Dean
can't later recast himself as a moderate without being ridiculed
for, well, recasting himself as a moderate.

Dean enthusiasts believe their candidate can transcend these
obstacles through the force of his blunt-speaking personality,
which they compare to that of McCain. Yet Dean's appeal remains
socioeconomically confined. His self- described combination of
fiscal conservatism and social liberalism inspires the educated
elite--who have been gravitating toward the Democratic Party--but
holds little sway among blue-collar and rural voters who have
slipped toward the GOP. A recent New Hampshire poll showed Dean
winning 77 percent approval from likely primary voters with
postgraduate degrees but less than 50 percent approval from those
without college degrees. Rural and working-class voters have warmed
to Bush because they believe he shares their values--an important
element of which is his notion of evil, which can be defeated only
through force, whether or not the rest of the world approves.
Dean's pompous demeanor, outspoken social liberalism, and antiwar
stance would render him helpless against the cultural populism Bush
uses so effectively.

One of the most difficult tasks parties face is convincing their
activist bases to compromise in order to win. Even some of his
critics have credited Dean with generating enthusiasm among the
rank and file, but it's a negative kind of enthusiasm. When Dean
says Democrats are angrier at their own party than they are at the
GOP, he's identifying a severe political liability--one that he's
aggravating. If Dean does not win the nomination, he will have
nurtured that sense of grievance among the Democratic base. Many
Dean supporters deeply opposed the war in Iraq and much of Bush's
anti-terror agenda, and they feel that the Democratic nominee has a
moral obligation to mount a full-throated opposition from the left
regardless of the consequences. That is their right. But they're
fooling themselves if they think doing so will be anything other
than a political disaster.

The eventual nominee, if not Dean, will have to reconcile with a
liberal base whose expectations the former Vermont governor has
raised. If the eventual nominee tries to woo the political center,
he will therefore depress the base. One short-term outcome of such
a schism was suggested by Ralph Nader, who, according to The New
York Times, said the nomination of Dean (or ultra-lefty Dennis
Kucinich) would make him less likely to mount another third-party
challenge. The obvious corollary is that, if another candidate wins
the Democratic nomination, Nader will cite this as a rationale for
his candidacy. Dean has said he will endorse whomever ultimately
wins the primary. But his attacks upon the Democratic mainstream
(particularly his view of political compromise as a kind of
character flaw) will make his supporters all the more amenable to
the liberal purity of another spoiler campaign by Nader. As one
Dean loyalist wrote on the unofficial Dean Web log, "Democratic
voters are being driven to the Green Party by DLC [Democratic
Leadership Council] Republicrats."

The eventual nominee's other option would be to move left to placate
liberals energized by Dean. Kerry--who doesn't exactly have
electability to spare--has already begun to emulate Dean by
declaring his "anger" at Bush despite a widespread view that
general-election voters prefer optimistic candidates over irate
ones. If Dean wins a strong following in the primaries, Democrats
may have to give opponents of the war prime speaking time at the
2004 convention and influence over the platform and
vice-presidential nominee. Dukakis had to give Jesse Jackson this
sort of deference in 1988, helping define him as unacceptably
liberal to many voters. Dean may lose the nomination, but, unless
he loses badly, the damage he inflicts will endure.

Indeed, while Dean's personal style apes McCain, his candidacy
structurally resembles that of another insurgent: Steve Forbes.
Both Forbes and Dean were the opposition party's ideal nominee.
(The GOP equivalent of an antiwar liberal from Vermont is a
right-wing millionaire from horse country.) Forbes, like Dean, took
advantage of his outside-Washington status to batter more electable
opponents for their inevitable compromises. (GOP nominee Bob Dole
blamed his 1996 general-election defeat on the pounding he endured
from Forbes in the primaries.) Like the Forbes campaign, the
primary effect of Dean's insurgent run will be to make it harder
for his party's eventual nominee to adopt a broadly popular
platform without disappointing the activist base. And, without
doing that, no Democrat can deny George W. Bush
another--potentially catastrophic--four years. No wonder Karl Rove
is chortling.

share this article on facebook or twitter

print this article

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.

Back to Top

SHARE HIGHLIGHT

0 CHARACTERS SELECTED

TWEET THIS

POST TO TUMBLR

SHARE ON FACEBOOK