Monday, January 19, 2004

PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE: Let me get in a post about Democratic politics before the Iowa caucuses, so I’ll be SURE to look foolish tomorrow.

Y’know, if it looks like I’ve been a Howard Dean supporter, that’s only because, with mild reservations, I have been. I really admire the man’s aggressive attitude and the amazing grassroots campaign he’s put together.

I fell into the trap of thinking Dean was inevitable a few weeks ago, but now the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire say he’s still got a fight ahead of him. Okay, then. Let’s hear from some actual voters. And, guys, no rabbit punches or hitting below the belt, and may the best man win. (By dropping out, Carol Moseley-Braun has endorsed my use of single-gender pronouns.)

The rest of this was mostly written before the weekend:

Matthew Yglesias at Tapped directed me to
this John Harris piece in the Washington Post
about competing campaign strategies among the contestants for the Democratic nomination. Here’s Harris:

”In one sense, the strategic question facing Democrats about how to beat Bush amounts to a debate between Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, and [Mark] Penn, a principal author of Clinton's political strategy from 1995 onward.

“That strategy was built around a constant focus on the preferences of swing voters skeptical of both parties. Penn's premises about the primacy of independents and how to engage them are shared by several other Democratic campaigns.

“In an interview, Trippi said, ‘The established way is to go after the middle, even if it means depressing your base.’ He said that swing voters will look at large issues -- the war and the budget -- but that policy positions are secondary to the larger mood and promise Dean conveys.

“That promise, in the campaign's view, is a revival of grass-roots democracy to challenge Bush's alleged coziness with corporate special interests. Independent voters don't necessarily gravitate to the most moderate candidate.

“’There's something very appealing about taking a party back, and that crosses party lines,’ he said. ‘The middle tends to go the most energized party.’

“Penn said there is no evidence for this. ‘The real swing voters are not members of either party, and they are not excited by “political momentum,” ‘ he said. "They make up their mind without reference to political parties.’”

And here is Matt’s response, in part:

”Not to put too fine a point on it, [neglecting the swing voters] is insane. For one thing, a swing voter who switches his allegiance from one party to another is worth twice as much at the polls as a non-voter who you mobilize. Moreover, if Dean doesn't even try to win over former Bush voters to his side, he's going to make it easy for Bush to reach swing voters who went for Gore in 2000. Last but not least, this strategy ignores the single biggest advantage the Democrats have going into the race -- the fact that Bush's policies remain consistently less popular than Bush himself. A clear opportunity exists to convince people to vote their actual beliefs rather than their gut-level affection for the president's personality, but it won't amount to much if the opposition isn't interested in reaching out. It's true that the potential swing electorate is rather small, but it certainly exists, and it's well worth fighting for.”

This gets at the heart of the Democrats’ dilemma. There’s as much unsaid here as there is said, though, and I may well be about to go off on a Rohrschach test-style tangent, seeing something there that another reader doesn’t see. With that disclaimer, here I go.

I think Matt has constructed a straw man here, or bought too heavily into the media image of Howard Dean as the radical-left candidate of angry Bush haters. I don’t think “energizing the party” necessarily means cheerleading for the people who want to boil Bush in oil. Dean can legitimately claim to have remade the party, thanks to hundreds of thousands of small contributors, ten of thousands of Meet-Ups. And the Dean revolution is primarily organizational, not ideological. I think Dean has a great chance of crafting a vivid, vigorous, positive image for the party and the campaign.

Lurch leftward to fire up the base, or lurch rightward to appeal to those mythical creatures, the swing voters. What if it’s not an either-or choice? What if there is a zen process whereby by not trying to get the swing voters, that’s how you get ‘em? That possibility makes as much sense to me as anything. Don’t lurch. Work hard. Show some integrity. Don’t posture, don’t bullshit, and don’t take any bullshit from your opponent or from the press.

Maybe I just need to see more specifically what this Penn-ian swing voter strategy is. What I fear is that it would resemble the Dems’ strategy from the ’02 midterms, which was “give Bush everything he wants, but whine and nitpick about it in the process.”

I acknowledge the point that Americans like G.W. Bush the man better than they like his policies. The eventual nominee will need to moderate the anti-Bush rhetoric. The best way to attack Bush is not to say he’s a liar. It’s to say that he’s well-intentioned but weak, that his administration is out of control, that the real people in charge are Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, the ideologues and the stonewallers and the petty political backstabbers. The Democrats are the truth-telling, decent, pragmatic alternative.

Matt’s remark that a swing voter is twice as valuable as a new voter, is a bit facile. A Rolex watch, if I found it lying on the sidewalk, would be worth more than my whole week’s paycheck. But which do I have a better chance of actually getting my hands on?

Okay, my metaphor isn’t that great either. I’m not a complete idiot, and neither (need I point out) is Joe Trippi. No one wants the Democrats to ignore the electoral map or other tactical considerations in the fall. My final word for now: Joe Trippi has worked a near revolution in progressive politics in the last year. Mark Penn works for Joe Lieberman, for crying out loud. Right now I’m a lot more inclined to trust Trippi’s judgment than Penn’s.

Atrios as always is smarter and more concise than I.

Calpundit’s thoughts are here.

Tapped again (Nick Confessore this time). Somebody slap me, because when I read a Beltway journalist, even a good one like Mr. Confessore, say something “verges on gibberish,” my knee-jerk reaction is to give more credence, not less, to the so-called gibberish.

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