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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Monday, April 28, 2003


Clarifying the Conventional Wisdom

posted by Joe at Monday, April 28, 2003 permalink View blog reactions
Christopher Curtis has already ably handled the recent New Republic Online piece by Ryan Lizza on the 2004 candidates, but I worry that some of Lizza's many conjectures are seeping into the ether unquestioned. With nine candidates in the field, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is getting complicated. Lizza makes a heck of a lot of presumptions and Dean supporters should be on the lookout for shoddy interpretation of their candidate's situation.

Again, it's complicated, so for your convenience we present a true/false guide to this Democratic candidate round-up piece using the following format:

Reason: If necessary.
From "Field Test" by Ryan Lizza at the New Republic Online:

If Karl Rove had designed the ideal setting to magnify the stature gap between the wartime president and his Democratic challengers on the day tanks rolled through Baghdad, he could hardly have done better than forcing the viable candidates, such as John Kerry, John Edwards, and Joe Lieberman, to share a stage with Al Sharpton, Dennis Kucinich, and Carol Moseley Braun, and making all of the above genuflect before Marian Wright Edelman, the [Children's Defense Fund] president and liberal icon whose husband quit the Clinton administration in disgust over welfare reform.
Reason: Only insiders and candidates' supporters were paying attention; there was no inter-party consequence to that event.

Howard Dean echoed Moseley Braun's lefty isolationist belief that rebuilding Iraq would simply cost too much. (Only Edwards made the obvious point that Democrats could actually be in favor of spending money abroad on Iraq and at home on health care.)
Reason: Howard Dean argued that the cost of both disarming and rebuilding Iraq should be borne by a truly global coalition. President Bush, by failing to lead the world and effectively losing a popularity contest to a murderous dictator, increased the amount of American blood and treasure necessary to do the as-yet-unfinished job of disarming Iraq and assuring stable, democratic government there.

Dean then added perhaps the most stunning line from a Democratic candidate during the war: "We should have contained Saddam. Well, we got rid of him. I suppose that's a good thing."
Reason: Dean's point is that the US could have neutralized the threat posed by Saddam -- that was the whole point, remember? -- in a number of ways. For all the maligning of Dean's position on the war, it seems that his idea that North Korea represented the more immediate threat (and, even if we ignore the nuclear threat there, that the US should lead something more than the Coalition of Client States into Baghdad) no one has made a convincing case that Iraq was the greatest threat to the United States. In that way, if the US Army had marched on Harare and liberated the people of Zimbabwe, it would be "a good thing" but not the course of action most likely to furthest advance the US national interest. Dean's line was stunning only insofar as he has not allowed himself to be pushed around by the glib mass media storyline that anyone who questioned the Bush policy on Iraq was somehow proven wrong by victory of the world's only superpower over the conscript military of a backward dictatorship.

[I]f the media's impressive ability to pivot quickly from 24-hour coverage of the war to 24-hour coverage of Laci Peterson's murder is any sign, the Democratic presidential campaign may abruptly emerge from its wartime media blackout when the nine candidates gather May 3 in Columbia, South Carolina, for their first big debate. The format for the evening, 90 minutes split between nine candidates, will only allow for snippets from each of the contenders, but on that day the new contours of the campaign should start to come into focus.
Reason: The relevance of that event will depend on whether each candidate will get a different question or whether all candidates will answer a single question before the next one is asked. The format for the CDF gathering was, as I said at the time, too unwieldy for the size of the field. With nine candidates, debate is impossible unless they are seated around a conference table and allowed to guide the flow of the evening themselves with minimal interruption. That won't happen. At this stage the best way to gauge the candidates would be at an event where each gives his or her stump speech and sits down. To the extent that every candidate speaks on each question there will be the opportunity for some meaningful comparison.

The first postwar question that the Columbia debate will help answer is whether or not Dean remains a force.
Reason: This will be true only if the format allows candidates enough time to speak and viewers the opportunity to compare responses on the same question.

Until now, Dean has been the darling of Democratic beauty contests, hamming it up and basking in the glow of liberal interest-group cheers, from NARAL Pro-Choice America to the Iowa Federation of Labor to the CDF. But, unlike most of the recent Democratic events, the South Carolina debate will be hosted by ABC News rather than an interest group on the liberal edge of the party. There will be a lot less time for pandering and applause lines.
Reason: Dean was the darling of most of those events, but his best performances were to the California Democratic Party Convention and the DNC Winter Meeting, both less extreme audiences than those Lizza lists. Given that much of Dean's support comes from people who haven't been politically active before and aren't part of the special interest crowd, South Carolina itself -- and, really, what are we talking about as far as this debate goes? the studio audience? -- should not be a problem, and will likely be a strength. Not enough has been made in the press about Dean's line that he will aggressively pursue the white vote in the South, and thus roll back the alarmingly prevalent Republican strategy of covertly playing the race card there, by [paraphrasing] "reminding the white guy with the Confederate flag decal on the window of his pick-up truck that his kid doesn't have health insurance, either." Dean's strength is his plainspoken manner -- see his handling of the liberal-label question at the CDF forum. But, of course, one should never underestimate the ability of all the candidates to work in significant pandering and ample applause lines, no matter how tangentially related to the question.

Dean may also find South Carolina a little outside of his comfort zone. Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, where Dean has spent most of his time campaigning, South Carolina has a Democratic electorate that is 40 percent African American--not a natural constituency for the ex-Vermont governor.
Reason: Dean has been the most outspoken Democratic candidate against the Bush administration's assault on affirmative action. He has repeatedly called President Bush to task for using the word "quota" to describe the University of Michigan policy, which -- even according to his own subordinates' briefs filed with the Supreme Court -- isn't really true. The Bush administration's case against the Michigan policy rests on the highly contentious claim that the policy "amounts to a quota." Aside from actually being black, it's not clear what more Dean could do than having a more coherent agenda on civil rights (and providing health insurance and better education for the poor) than the two black candidates.

Dean's performance in South Carolina and beyond will have a significant ripple effect on the rest of the field. Kerry, whose status as front-runner was undermined during the war when he placed second behind Edwards in the money race, must soon decide if Dean's candidacy represents a mortal threat or not.
Dean's road to the nomination runs over the carcass of Kerry's campaign....
[I]f the governor shows staying power, Kerry will be forced further to the left to dispatch Dean. ... "The question is, can [Dean] keep the lefty real estate?" asks a Kerry adviser. "Do liberals suspend their disbelief on this guy for much longer?"
Reason: This line of reasoning reared its wrong head back in February. The idea then was that the entry into the race of ultraliberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich "leaves Howard Dean without a constituency" and is "Howard Dean's worth nightmare". There has not and will not be any traction to the definition of Dean as the ultraliberal in the race. Those who read Dean's support as coming only from the far left do so at their own peril because the Dean coalition is broader than it is deep and captures something quintessential than his ideology, which is, if anything, pragmatist. Liberals haven't suspended their disbelief; they have swallowed their pride.

Just as Kerry is threatened by Dean in Kerry's must-win state of New Hampshire, Gephardt is threatened by Dean in Gephardt's must-win state of Iowa.
Gephardt's new health care plan, which expands the kind of coverage currently offered by employers (through a new tax credit) and by the government (through opening up Medicare and the SCHIP program), is similar to what Dean has outlined but may be actually more comprehensive--and more expensive--placing Gephardt to the left of Dean on the issue.
The other candidates, especially Lieberman and Edwards, neither of whom is expected to win in Iowa or New Hampshire, seem delighted by the prospect of a titanic battle between Dean and Kerry. "Dean could slay Kerry for us," says an aide to a rival campaign. Without the burden of having to win in the two early states, both Edwards and Lieberman are elbowing for advantage in what might be called the February 3 strategy. That's the first primary day after New Hampshire, and, while it originally was to be monopolized by South Carolina, now Arizona and Missouri are also scheduled for that day, with Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Tennessee preparing to move there as well. Aides to both Edwards and Lieberman envisage a strategy where their candidates do respectably in Iowa and New Hampshire but then break out with victories on February 3. ... Edwards [is] the fund-raising champion who, as a Southerner, may be positioned to do well not just in South Carolina, where he has to win, but in the other states that will hold their contests on that day as well.
Reason: Besides the proximity of their home states, Dean and Kerry are doing well in New Hampshire because they are the only candidates that many voters take seriously. There is no other explanation of why Lieberman -- who is from Connecticut, which isn't exactly on the other side of the world from New Hampshire -- and Edwards -- who, despite having raised the most money of all the candidates, can't buy a double-digit showing in polls there -- should be doing so poorly. Pursuing the February 3 strategy and choosing to sit out Iowa and New Hampshire might deprive Lieberman and Edwards of valuable experience and exposure -- and could mean they never get in the game at all.


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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.