Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Dean and Gephardt

What happened to Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean? Here’s a few unfinished thoughts, for what it’s worth:

Gephardt clearly had some serious problems before the caucuses ever started. He was only ever in contention in one mid-Western state bordering his own. For one thing, he’s past his political shelf life. You usually only get one serious go-around at the presidency, and Gephardt had his in 1988. I know that people often cite Nixon (or even Reagan) to the contrary, but Gephardt was no Nixon: Nixon won his party’s nomination, lost a very close general election, and ran again only eight years later; Gephardt collapsed in his party’s nomination process after winning just one state and then promptly returned to Congress, where he lost almost every major political and legislative battle for the next 15 years. Gephardt was "stale".

Gephardt also had a style problem: he ran 13 times in a safe St. Louis district, which didn’t help him on the stump, even in Iowa. I watched some campaign events on C-SPAN and noticed that with his laconic, mid-Western delivery, he either sounded like John Wayne without the movie-star quality or, when he tried to fire up a room, like the mediocre coach of a bad football team who thinks he has to yell even though it can’t possibly make a difference. In a two-way race with Howard Dean, Gephardt’s mid-Western solidity would have helped, but not with Kerry and Edwards seeming like sane alternatives. And boring doesn’t become inspiring by shouting.

Moreover, Gephardt didn’t seem to adjust to the (now well-known) fact that old-fashioned trade unions and family farmers are not the political force they once were in the mid-West. Sure, they can turn out important votes in a close general election against a Republican candidate, but the rise of agribusiness and the serious decline of union membership -- especially in traditional manufacturing sectors -- will continue to reduce the power of these constituencies within the Democratic party -- even in Iowa.

And what about those reliable 65 and older voters? Gephardt couldn’t manufacture a plausible, immediate Social Security or Medicare scare in order to really turn out the senior citizens. Without that, John Kerry appealed to the senior vote that now matters most to Democratic politicians: the 55-64 year old Vietnam generation. If there’s any lesson here, it’s that Bush has nothing serious to fear over Social Security or Medicare.

Finally, Gephardt’s signature issue -- opposition to free trade -- just didn’t capture Iowans. While recent polls show that the economy is a concern among voters (although not the top one, which is terrorism), full-out opposition to free trade doesn’t resonate anymore. This is partly because of the declining power of trade unions and partly because while everyone laments the loss of factory jobs to Mexico or China, almost no one seriously entertains the idea of unraveling global trade deals. People understand that Pandora’s Box would be opened wide, and unless you’ve lost your job directly to such deals, it’s not worth the risk, especially if your job depends in any way on exports.

If Gephardt fizzled, perhaps the biggest surprise (though perhaps not to readers of the blogs on this page) was how badly Howard Dean imploded. I won’t repeat other people’s insights about Dean’s miscues, his limited appeal as the angry candidate, or the fact that endorsements don’t mean anything in national Democratic politics these days unless they come from the Clintons. I would, however, add a few other thoughts.

First, like Gephardt, Dean was the only major candidate to call for repealing all of the Bush tax cut in order to finance universal health care. As John Kerry pointed out over and over again in his ads, repealing a tax cut is raising taxes. Now it’s certainly true that some people -- especially in key Democratic constituencies -- really, really want to have health care paid for by someone else. But it’s also true that most other people -- even in the Democratic party -- aren’t really sure that they want to pay someone else’s doctor bills. Kerry got it right politically by saying that only the "rich" would have their taxes raised to pay for expansion of health care. This shows less about health care than it does about the fact that the Democrats have capitulated on middle-class taxes. Look for the Bush people to start defining very clearly who’s in the middle class.

Dean’s poor showing also makes it indisputably clear that his own defining issue -- passionate opposition to the war in Iraq -- is potentially deadly for the Democrats. Even for most Democrats in Iowa, Iraq is now about finishing the job and winning the peace, not about why we went to war in the first place. In their heart of hearts, most post 9-11 Americans just don’t care: it’s enough for them that Saddam was evil and that they are safe from his future menace (not to mention menace from those who took note of his destruction).

Perhaps most importantly for Dean’s political future, he showed real character problems during the most recent debates and campaign stops. Where instinctive (if undisciplined) politicians like Bill Clinton get clearer and sharper when someone attacks them (almost like they need a serious challenge in order to make it worth their effort), Dean became prickly and unfocused when Al Sharpton or Kerry really went after him. He acted like a patrician unused to being seriously challenged by anyone below him; after all, as governor and in the early presidential debates, he got used to dismissing, outmanuvering, or bullying relatively hapless opponents. And I’m not sure this problem can be fixed: like Al Gore, Dean’s not a Clinton: a kid from the streets who had to scratch and claw for everything he got even while learning to keep his cool doing it. As Gore found out, Dean’s kind of character flaw inevitably comes out when you go up against the big boys and everyone is watching closely.

We’re now heading to New Hampshire with four candidates: Kerry, Edwards, Dean, and Clark. Clark was going to be the un-Dean, but that may not be necessary anymore because if Dean doesn’t win or at least finish a very close second in New Hampshire, he could be finished in the South. If so, Clark’s appeal would dim even though he’s got all kinds of money. That could, perhaps, leave us with a three person race in South Carolina -- Edwards, Kerry, and Sharpton -- with Edwards and Kerry as the serious contenders to the end. The only sure bet is that Hillary is smiling right now.

Discussions - 2 Comments

I disagree with only one point, at least strongly. You state that endorsements do not matter. In fact, they do but in a perverse and twisted sort of way. Dont you imagine several of the newly annointed favorites waking up in a cold sweat this morning from a nightmare dream whereby Al Gore has called to tell them he plans to announce his endorsement for them today on the National news!

Dr. Dean’s "character problems"...

Say rather "he acted like a doctor whose medical judgment or decision was challenged by a nurse or hospital administrator".

I’ll miss Dick Gephardt, even though I disagreed with him on every issue of substance.


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