Tuesday, January 20, 2004

The Dean of Oz

Wow. Waited a few hours to reflect before posting this, as I'm still reeling from the results. I had previously bought into the conventional wisdom that the Iowa results would not shift the dynamic of the race between Dean and anti-Dean (i.e., Clark). But it's clear now that because the candidates all have such "soft" support, both Dean and Clark's strengths are overstated and it's still anyone's game. And obviously I was a jackass to pronounce Kerry's demise. But at the risk of more embarrassment, some post-Iowa tea-leaf reading:

The key question: Can Dean recover from this drubbing?

I think it's highly unlikely.

It's hard to exaggerate the significance of what happened in Iowa. Dean's entire campaign is built on the idea of a movement -- that the people belong to something larger than themselves. They "have the power" to "take back America." However, unlike most political movements, it's not based on an actual cause (e.g., civil rights, sufferage) but on its own success. Or specifically, the Dean movement is based on (1) the authenticity and purity of the struggle; (2) the revolutionary change the movement will help usher in. Dean can still ride the authenticity angle a little further, but the Dean Revolution is now the political equivalent of WebVan -- a great theory that has crapped out in practice. Remember, Dean campaigned for two years in Iowa, a small, comparatively anti-war state that a natural for the kind of grass-roots mobilization that Dean's campaign has championed. To that end, the guy has outspent everyone, and bussed in thousands of volunteers from out-of-state to GOTV. What does he get for this? 18%. Kerry beat him among both first time caucus-goers *and* anti-war people. What we're left with is a guy better suited to be a high school football coach.

Can anyone now take seriously the idea that Dean's ragtag army will pull millions of new voters into the voting booth in November? Watching one of those caucus re-runs on C-SPAN brings me back to college, where some well-meaning dweeb would try to guilt me into becoming a vegan. If I want to institute a ban on, say, the illicit posting of distortedly effeminate pictures of dapper Asian men, I'd try to get a bunch of well-meaning college students to go around protesting against the ban. No group is less persuasive than college activists, and anecdotal evidence suggests Dean's "Perfect Storm" activism backfired as Iowa voters got fed up with aggressive telemarketing pitches from Wesleyan punks.

But the bubble has burst. Many Deaniacs are disillusioned.
Dean's now being compared to tech stocks -- a tale of the bubble bursting from inflated hype. That's about right. The Dean campaign is all about buzz generating more buzz. Folks who weren't interested in politics were talking about Dean. You hear his name uttered by punk kids in Seattle and arty hipsters in Silver Lake. When you lose the buzz -- when you're deemed a has-been, it's hard to recover. I think Dean's lost "it", and now he's just like the other guys. And when Dean's pitted against Clark, Edwards, and even to some degree Kerry on a level playing field, it's clear he's just not as formidable a candidate.

But that doesn't explain why Dean did so badly. Beyond the negative media coverage and the "angry candidate backlash," another good explanation is that voters are burnt out on Iraq. If that's the case, the best scenario for a Dean comeback is Iraq to get worse, fanning the flames of voter outrage. Otherwise, I don't think his attempt at being a sober issues candidate will work (Edwards has that beat covered), though he obviously should start pinning his campaign to something substantive, to something other than the "movement" and his own authenticity. Health care, perhaps? The good doctor still has money, organization, die-hard supporters, and some admirable and appealing qualities that make him a good candidate. He's got numerous tangible advantages, but it's just that there are better candidates. And today, it looks very much like Governor Dean will playing Governor Moonbeam to Clark/Edwards/Kerry's Bill Clinton.

That development, for those of us who want Bush defeated the worst way, is a good thing.

p.s. E.J. Dionne has a very nice piece that explains Dean's current plight: he played a necessary role in moving the candidates into a stronger, more combative stance against Bush, but now he's becoming obsolete as more electable pseudo-Deans have emerged. Solution: make Dean DNC head or HHS Sec!