Along the Tracks

Monday, July 07, 2003

Dean, the frontrunner

I caught the tail end of the “McLaughlin Group” (sorry, no specific link for this week’s episode was up when I posted this) over the weekend, and one of their segments was on Howard Dean and his fundraising success. The panel still put his chances at capturing the nomination at somewhere between slim and none.

They may be the pinnacle of political expertise, but they are wrong.

Two months ago, I wrote a “horse-race” column that put Howard Dean’s odds at the Democratic nod even with John Kerry’s. After the past few weeks (and despite his lousy performances in interviews, especially the recent “Meet the Press” appearance), I think I have to put Dean in the driver’s seat. This Democratic contest for the nomination is not, and will not be, about issues, ultimately. It is about mood. And the Bush-bashing, anti-force, anti-conservatism, anti-paradigm shift after 9/11, pro-European, pro-big government wing of the Democrats - Dean’s “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” - will decide the nomination. When they speak of Dean (or Dennis Kucinich, for that matter), they exude energy. Those two candidates have captured the mood, to the exclusion of all the “establishment” campaigns.

Now, the big confrontation won’t come until Super Tuesday, but there will be some earlier shakeups, setting the pins for that day eight months ahead. I expect to see the best general election candidate, Joe Lieberman, drop out by this fall. John Edwards is almost certainly gone in a couple more months as well. Ditto Bob Graham. And as the Dean train chugs forward, Kucinich is going to get run over by those seeking to jump on the left’s potential winner.

Dean will win liberal Iowa and backyard New Hampshire, and that double-whammy will probably oust Dick Gephardt from the race. Kerry will carry the establishment torch to the South. Al Sharpton (and to a much lesser extent, Carole Mosely-Braun) will siphon off a fair share, maybe half, of African-American votes. That leaves Southern white women, Hispanics and non-movement blacks to decide between Dean and Kerry - two Northeastern liberals. Can you say, “low turnout”?

The result of this Southern brew is likely to be a fractious distribution of delegates. And while Kerry might well come out of that day’s voting with more delegates than Dean, he will have failed to stop Dean’s momentum, much less knock him out. Kerry’s got the money and backing to hang in there through March (probably), but the Midwestern and Western primaries look much more Dean-friendly. And again, I don’t think I can overstress the energy Dean brings to the campaign - an energy far more persuasive to angry liberals than concepts like “foreign-policy gravitas” or “electability.”

The caveats I placed in my earlier column - another terror attack, another hot war, an economic implosion - are not just potential wildcards, but actually would strengthen Dean who, despite his questionable positions, has set himself apart as the candidate of change amid a field of boring, stodgy establishment figures. Any new shocks to the political system will favor the candidate which energizes the hard-core base of his party. Among the Democrats, that candidate is Dean.

Interestingly, the rise of Dean virtually assures that Hillary Clinton will not enter the race. She would undoubtedly win the nomination, but the tenor of this Democratic campaign has changed from pragmatism and ideas to mood and energy - raw meat over a balanced meal. When the general election comes, the Democrats will be at a heavy disadvantage on that front. Most Americans may not agree with Bush’s “ideas” and “plans” and “choices,” but they trust his leadership and they like him. In the battleground of emotions nationally, positive feelings toward President Bush far outweigh the negative. In an issue-less, emotionally-oriented campaign, Bush wins hands-down. Hillary is a savvy enough political mind to realize this and avoid the taint of a loss.

The only hope the Democrats really had was to turn national attention away from the “feelings” brought on by 9/11 and Bush’s response (still ongoing), and return to the hard facts of daily life: a slow economy, exploding health care costs, state budget troubles, etc. Admittedly, even if they could succeed, this would be an uphill battle - but a battle nonetheless.

Instead, the Dems are well on their way to a “popularity contest,” and Dean (and frankly, the rest of the Dem field, announced or rumored) has ZERO chance winning one of those against a 60-percent-approval-rating president.

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