« Support the Borders Strike | Main | Following Directions »

November 11, 2003

What Makes a Candidate Electable?

There a round of discussion on whether Dean is electable from doubters such as Kevin Drum and John Judis.

In some ways I don't get it at all. Dean has demonstrated the ability to build a massive campaign organization so early in the process that it's almost staggering. It's not even December and he has an almost psychotically devoted following. He runs as well in the polls as any other Democrat against Bush.

So why these odd doubts, other than "buyer's remourse" because it actually looks like he'll be the nominee?

Can he Appeal to Moderates? One problem is the idea that the undecided are "moderates" who are just looking for someone equidistant between Bush and Nancy Pelosi. But lots of disaffected folks are far odder than that-- yes, the confederate flag waving devotees of socialized health care that Dean was undeftly talking about. (As someone who went door to door campaigning for universal health care, I can attest they exist). A more "moderate" candidate might not be appealing enough on economic issues to make such a candidate abandon Bush on cultural issues. The GOP appealed to "Reagan Democrats" not by being "moderate" on social issues, but by being so righteously rightwing on them that they convinced them to abandon economic self-interest for voting their social values. A Democrat may have to do the reverse on economic appeals to reverse the political flow of votes.

The Wrong Personality? But aside from that, some raise the issue of Presidential "personality." They just don't think Dean is smooth enough, he's too angry or gloomy or such. Now, there are folks who just lack any spark or charisma, but that doesn't apply to Dean who seems to wow crowds at times. So this is a narrower argument that only "pleasant" and "upbeat" people get to be President.

So how do you explain mean ol Dick Nixon?
Or gross, rude Lyndon Baines Johnson?
Or school marmish Jimmy Carter?
Or give him hell Harry Truman?

Frankly, you look at the menagerie of personalities elected to be President and it's actually hard to pick out any consistency or common attribute. And most were dismissed as lightweights or losers at this point in the process in the past-- JFK was seen as "callow", Clinton still recovering from his deathly boring 1988 convention speech (I've always thought Gennifer Flowers helped Clinton by making him seem less wonky), and Reagan was still seen as a guaranteed far-right loser in 1979.

And let's not even start on icons like Lincoln and FDR, who were dismissed by all manner of even friendly folks in their party early on.

What a Difference a Year Makes: None of this is to say that Dean will necessarily wear well over the next year of campaigning, but that's a long time to evolve as a personality. Just getting the nomination and the authority that confers often radically enhances a person's gravitas.

And what Dean has is what Reagan and other strong leaders had- a devoted following that will defend him against any and all attacks. That safety net is very important; one of Clinton's greatest failings is that he was a Party of One, so he lived and died by the media roller coaster, with little independent mobilization on his behalf out in the population (until impeachment brought some of the left grassroots to life).

As I've said, I believe in organization, and many progressives are operating on the basis of the past when there was no serious organization out in the grassroots to defend their candidate from the Mighty Wurlitzer of rightwing propaganda. Not that the Bush attacks won't be real and sustained, but give me a fanatic organization going door-to-door and community-group-to-community-group to respond over a pleasant personality any day.

Clinton needed triangulation because he was playing to the media. With organization, you actually can make the nuanced arguments to appeal to the "unaffiliated" (Karl Rove's term by the way) who are not in the middle, but just conflicted by mixed political commitments.

Who knows if Dean as a personality is "electable"? We'll never know, since we have Dean, the Campaign Organization, which is a far different beast than Democrats are used to dealing with.

But I will take Dean the Campaign over any Candidate, however pleasant or media focus-grouped their positions.

Posted by Nathan at November 11, 2003 07:30 PM