Along the Tracks

Thursday, February 05, 2004
 

‘Electability’ not much of an asset for a president



From the Saturday Bryan Times and Northwest Signal:

By Paul A. Miller

No doubt you’ve heard the comments. “Electability” is the top issue for Democratic presidential primary and caucus voters two states into the race.

On the surface, this would seem to be a sign of the Democrats’ determination to retake the White House, to put the best face forward, to offer the best candidate.

Look deeper, however, and the reasons beneath this “factor” in the Democratic race for president are troubling, both for the party and for the choices offered to the wider electorate.

Consider the criteria for “electability.” What does that term entail? Good communication skills, certainly. An image of confidence. A perceived positive attitude. The ability to relate one-on-one with voters. No heavy ideological baggage.

All these characteristics have something in common: They describe a candidate’s “image.” Now, clearly image is important for a candidate’s viability. Yet image is, by definition, superficial. Sometimes it carries a candidate all the way to victory - at which point governing must begin. “Image” candidates often lead in ways which are less than satisfactory to their own base. Why? Because they were not chosen based on policies or ideas or goals in tune with the party; they were chosen because people thought they could win.

Democratic Party voters of 2004 find themselves on the horns of this dilemma. They, as a whole, are deeply antagonistic toward George W. Bush. This has only a little to do with policy. Mostly, this is a gut feeling. They don’t like his persona, his “image.”

The GOP was similarly disenchanted with Bill Clinton. What frighteningly liberal policies caused Republican emotional nausea? Welfare reform? Balanced budgets? The Kosovo Air War? Clinton, of course, was an “image” candidate - warm, moderate, good ol’ boy with a sense of humor. He let his advisers push him leftward politically in the first two years of his first term, was stung in the mid-term elections, and governed from the center for the rest of his presidency. By any reasonable measure, he was no more liberal than, dare I say it, George W. Bush. A good argument can be made that he was more conservative than GWB has proven to be.

But the image, ahhhh, that was - and is - quite different. For many Republicans, Clinton still symbolizes liberalism run amok. And Democrats now conveniently forget how much Bill Clinton did to end (temporarily) the “era of big government,” despite his liberal pronouncements.

Meanwhile, for Democrats, George W. Bush is the very specter of cold-hearted conservative cruelty - despite huge increases in government spending, a massive expansion of federal involvement in education, a bloated new addition to the Medicare program, and a five-fold increase in projected international aid over Clinton’s last budget.

Most GOP support of Bush continues, however grudgingly, due to the president’s truth in advertising: He said he’d be a “compassionate conservative,” which many saw as a dressed up way to say “fiscal liberal.” He said he’d spend more on international aid. He said he’d spend more on education. He said he’d spend more on Medicare. Conservatives may not like these actions when they are forced to confront them, but they can’t claim they weren’t warned.

Today’s Democrats, however, may be on the verge of coronating a presidential nominee based on image alone. Not only are positions blasé, they are seen as potential detriments. Thus, Senator John Kerry, the most positionless of all the Democratic field, has leapt to the forefront of the race. General Wesley Clark is making up new positions daily - and voters are rewarding him with serious consideration. Senator John Edwards failed to gain traction with his populist theme since entering the race over a year ago, but voters awoke to his candidacy when they saw him “looking presidential” while campaigning in Iowa. Even Edwards’ surge is hindered by “image”: many Democrats believe the senator looks too young to be seriously considered.

Candidates who have clearly stated their stands have suddenly been tarred as “unelectable.” Howard Dean built a tiny campaign into a juggernaut, not with image certainly, but with conviction - only to see the bubble burst spectacularly when Democratic voters guessed that the electorate at large would not choose someone who is “angry.” Dick Gephardt ran on a long record of true Democratic values and lost badly in his own backyard. Carol Moseley Braun carefully crafted an orthodox liberal agenda, and was not given so much as a second look, despite the potential historic nature of her candidacy. Joe Lieberman has carried the Clinton centrist mantle, but his polling numbers show Democrats didn’t love centrism, they just loved Bill.

Elections are about choices, and the 2004 presidential choice will be crucial - much more so than anyone would have thought after the drama of 2000. A candidate without clear positions cannot offer a real choice to general election voters. While Governor Dean’s anti-war focus might not appear to provide the best route to victory for Democrats, it would provide a clear choice. The distinctions offered by Kerry or Clark versus George W. would appear shallow and opportunistic - because they are shallow and opportunistic.

Odds-playing Democratic voters may believe those two candidates present the right “image,” but it seems quite likely that the larger voting public will be less than impressed when positions are considered. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, when it comes to personality, neither Clark nor Kerry could hold a candle to Bill Clinton.

If in the fall voters have a choice between an imperfect incumbent and a perfectly bland presidential image, they are likely to play it safe with imperfection.

And if they roll the dice on a candidate who stands for nothing, the Democrats who were only concerned with winning will have won with a rudderless weakling, a president who looks good and accomplishes little.

The country as a whole will have lost.


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