Zombies

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SEPTEMBER 1, 2003

Zombies

Not long ago in these pages, I politely suggested that Democrats
would have to be out of their gourds to nominate Howard Dean for
president. Some Democratic strategists have made this case as well.
The gist of the anti- Dean argument is this: President Bush
maintains substantial popularity despite his plutocratic policies
by cultivating an image of moral conviction and foreign policy
toughness. Therefore, the ideal strategy to defeat the president is
not to put up an opponent who became controversial even in Vermont
for his association with gay civil unions, whose central foreign
policy platform is to "tear up the Bush doctrine," and who has been
known to yell to audiences, "I don't want to listen to
fundamentalist preachers anymore!" But, while these attributes may
alienate the red-state voters Democrats need in 2004, they seem
perfectly innocuous to many political reporters. And so the Dean
campaign has been treated to headlines such as "defying labels left
or right, dean's '04 run is making gains" (The New York Times) and
"as governor, dean was fiscal conservative" (The Washington Post)
rather than something along the lines of "obscure ex-governor of
tiny state leading party to catastrophe, experts warn." The closest
thing to skepticism has come from Newsweek magazine, whose August
11 cover headline read, "howard dean: destiny or disaster?" (Is it
really an either/or situation?) Every day, it seems, somebody
else--each more unexpected than the last--declares their conversion
to the cause. I feel like I'm in some kind of zombie horror movie.
Last week, a colleague--one with whom I nearly always agree on such
questions--wandered into my office and said something nice about
Dean. I clutched the sides of my head and screamed, "Noooo!"The latest vacant-eyed Dean zombie to come lurching forth, arms
outstretched, is the normally sensible Wall Street Journal
columnist and CNN pundit Al Hunt. In a recent column, Hunt
perfunctorily dismissed the arguments against Dean. "His opposition
to the war certainly isn't lethal," Hunt maintained. "[N]o one says
that Bob Graham would be doomed by his antiwar position." Perhaps no
one says this because no one thinks Graham will win the Democratic
nomination. But never mind that. Hunt sees something corrupt in the
anti-Dean phenomenon--"a battle more intrinsic to presidential
politics than ideological struggles: outsiders versus insiders,
insurrectionists versus the establishment." In Hunt's mind, the
Democratic Leadership Council's (DLC) opposition to Dean has
nothing to do with philosophy or even political calculation. "When
Al From, the longtime chief of the centrist Democratic Leadership
Council, blasts the front running insurgent, it's less about
ideology than power. After Bill Clinton and Al Gore, From fancies
himself a kingmaker, and Dr. Dean hasn't supped sufficiently at his
table."

In fact, the DLC distanced itself from Gore beginning in August of
2000, when he lurched left, and disowned him outright a few months
after the election. But what makes Hunt's antiestablishment
indignation comic is that few people in Washington have supped at
as many tables as Hunt. He is a regular on the society pages, which
chronicle his appearances at state dinners, parties at Pamela
Harriman's house, and status events, such as the wedding of Alan
Greenspan and Andrea Mitchell (who, a Washingtonian magazine
reporter divulged, is godmother to Hunt's daughter). Hunt belongs
to the comically selfimportant Gridiron Club--an elite social club
for journalists--and, along with his wife, CNN host Judy Woodruff,
has been identified by Washingtonian magazine as a member of the
city's social "A-list." Hunt salts his columns and TV punditry with
references to his many important friendships. He passionately
defended "his good friend" Vernon Jordan: "I've known Vernon Jordan
for almost 20 years. He's a friend. ... Would he have told [Monica
Lewinsky] to commit perjury? I just find that impossible to
believe." In one column, he fondly recalled, "Dinner parties at
[Post publisher Katherine Graham's] Georgetown estate were unique,
populated by the politicallypowerful, corporate chieftains,
literary lions and journalistic pooh-bahs." Outsider or insider?
Insurrectionist or establishment? You be the judge.

Dean's admirers are right about one thing: By harnessing the power
of the Internet, where Dean has raised millions of dollars, his
campaign has empowered grassroots activists. And among liberals
that has spawned a new theory: The Internet will do for the left
what talk radio did for the right. "It may turn out the liberal
answer to Rush [Limbaugh] wasn't an alternative talker, but the
mouse, the keypad and the browser," writes Los Angeles Times
columnist Ron Brownstein. It's comforting to think that, even if
Dean doesn't win, he will have unleashed long-term forces that help
liberals and Democrats even the playing field. But it is probably
not true. After all, talk radio is top-down. It's a medium for
Republicans to disseminate the party line among their base.
(Limbaugh occasionally denies that he is a partisan tool. In a 1995
Frontline documentary, he asserted, "The press continues to report
that dittoheads are simply mind-numbed robots waiting for marching
orders every day issued by me. And that's not true," only to be
seen in a later clip bellowing, "We'll be back with marching orders
next!") The Internet, on the other hand, is bottom-up: It allows
activists to help determine their party's course by, say, funneling
huge sums of cash to their candidate of choice. The trouble is that
grassroots activists' political calculations tend to be somewhat
suspect. In 1999, for instance, GOP true-believers were falling for
Alan Keyes, not George W. Bush. It fell to organs like talk radio
to whip the base into line behind Bush, allowing him to craft a
winning, centrist-sounding message. This year, by contrast, the
group MoveOn.org enabled its audience to vote in an online
"primary." The two leading candidates were Dean and ultra-lefty
Dennis Kucinich. This may be more democratic than a top-down
mandate from party elders, but it's also a good way to choose a
nominee who has no chance of winning. Putting disproportionate
power in the hands of impassioned political minorities, in other
words, isn't necessarily the best thing for the Democratic Party. It
may even be worse than putting disproportionate power in the hands
of the Georgetown dinner-party set.

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