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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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Tuesday, July 15, 2003


No More Mister Nice Guy

posted by Trammell at Tuesday, July 15, 2003 permalink View blog reactions
From TNR's &c.

STYLE POINTS: Ron Brownstein is right when he suggests, in today's LA Times column that candidates (read: Howard Dean) who satisfy "the visceral longing among Democrats for denunciation of Bush ... will frighten away centrist voters--the way conservatives did with their overheated attacks on Bill Clinton throughout his presidency." But in some sense that's not really the relevant question. After all, given the way the Democratic Party is configured--with the far left exerting considerable influence over the nominating process--there's no way to win the Democratic nomination without alienating centrist voters. The relevant question is therefore how you minimize the number of centrist voters you alienate en route to winning the nomination.

Once you realize that's the question, then Howard Dean's "visceral longing" strategy doesn't look like such a disaster. There are, after all, only two ways to satisfy the party's left-leaning base. The first is on the level of policy--that is, taking liberal positions. The second is on the level of tone--that is, angrily denouncing the president with overheated rhetoric. The beauty of the latter is that it's essentially contentless: It satisfies the base without locking you into any particular policy positions, meaning you're free to fill in the details of those positions as you see fit. And in Dean's case, those details happen to be pretty centrist (with the exception of his opposition to the war; more on that below): He's a relative moderate on gun control, the death penalty, trade, and fiscal matters.

Now you could certainly argue, as Brownstein does, that Dean's anger will scare away some swing voters. But, again, the question isn't whether it scares away swing voters. The question is, how many? And, any way you slice it, you probably scare away fewer swing voters by moving to the left of them tonally than you do by moving to the left of them ideologically.

At the same time, it becomes much, much easier to tack to the center after you win the nomination if you've appealed to the left through style rather than substance. Whereas someone like Dick Gephardt would risk alienating his blue-collar supporters when he began waffling on an issue like trade to lure moderates in the general election, Dean could further moderate his policies without any risk of defection on the left, since his support on the left had little to do with ideology in the first place.

On top of all of that, it's entirely possible that Brownstein overestimates the extent to which centrist voters might be turned off by Dean's anger. Yes, conservatives scared away moderates when they overreached against Bill Clinton. But it wasn't so much conservatives' rhetoric that alienated moderates. It was their policies: in particular, their policy of impeaching Clinton over an offense the average voter thought was none of Congress's business. Furthermore, there's probably something to be said for playing against type. One of the main problems Republicans have when it comes to winning over moderates is that moderates--particularly moderate women--tend to think of Republicans as nasty and mean. Well, when Republicans start saying things that actually are nasty and mean, it simply reinforces that image and makes the Republicans' job that much harder. But, of course, Democrats have the opposite problem: Moderates--particularly white males--think Democrats are too touchy-feely and soft. That means that a Democrat who comes off as angry and tough could actually help himself among moderates. At the very least it's hard to argue that he'd suffer to the extent that a Republican would.

The one curve ball in all of this is, of course, Iraq, which stands as the glaring exception to Dean's otherwise moderate pedigree, and, which, should Dean win the nomination, risks reinforcing an image of Democrats as weak and overly-suspicious of American power. But even here Dean seems likely to benefit from the tone/substance dichotomy outlined above. While Iraq was certainly the issue that first won Dean a lot of support on the left, that development had more to do with the tone of Dean's opposition to the war than the substance. (That's not to say Dean would have won support on the left had he been angry and in favor of the war. Just that he wouldn't have attracted those supporters had he been subdued and opposed.) Which means that it's entirely possible that Dean will be able to moderate the substance of even his foreign policy to appeal to moderates down the road. You can imagine, for example, Dean attacking Bush from the right on homeland security (which he's already begun to do) and the war on terror (the failure to catch Osama bin Laden, the administration's softness on the Saudis). As long as he does it with his trademark bluntness, it's tough to imagine him losing much support on the left.

What to say but "ummm-hmm."


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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.