Making Up My Mind

Being a New Hampshire voter is like being a Victorian debutante. For a season everyone courts you, but as soon as you pick somebody and say “I do,” you're just another wife. When the polls close on Tuesday, New Hampshire becomes just another small state. The privileged access we have had to the presidential candidates will end.

I've enjoyed my season of courtship. John Edwards has fed me a free breakfast and a free lunch. I have a tape of myself asking John Kerry a question on C-SPAN. I've seen Dennis Kucinich and Wesley Clark twice, and Howard Dean three times. My only regret is that Al Sharpton wrote us off. He's been interesting and funny on TV, and I would have liked to see him in person.

My hometown of Nashua has also enjoyed its season. Downtown looks as vibrant as it did during the Clinton years, because candidate offices have filled all the vacant space on Main Street. Next week those storefronts will probably be empty again.

But nothing lasts forever. It's time to make up my mind and let the candidates get on with the business of convincing the rest of the country.

What I fear

I wish I could just start listing the positive qualities that I want to see in the next President, but I can't describe what I'm looking for without talking about what I'm afraid of. I think the Bush administration represents something different than the normal back-and-forth of political fashion. I hate to sound like a raving lunatic, but I believe democracy may really be at risk: We're jailing people without trials; we've given the police power without accountability; we've gone to war based on deceptions.

Worst of all, in the long run, may be the right-wing political machine that is forming. The United States hasn't had a national political machine since Andrew Jackson, but we're building one now. (I lived in Chicago under the immediate successor of the first Mayor Daley; I know a machine when I see one.) Corporate power, media power, and government power are converging, and public opinion is easily manipulated by them.

In the last session of Congress, the Medicare bill (which passed), and the energy bill (which failed, but will come up again) were both examples of naked machine politics. Both bills were full of plums for industries and corporations that are part of the Bush coalition – not just a little favor here and there, but tens of billions of dollars worth of favors. Both demonstrated that the Republican leadership in Congress has given up even the appearance of fair play: voting on the Medicare bill stayed open for six hours until the House leadership could whip a few holdouts into line, and Democrats were shut out of the final conference committee hearings on the energy bill. The omnibus spending bill (which passed this week) is another example of the current Machiavellian attitude. Provisions that were voted down in each house (like increased limits on the number of TV stations Rupert Murdoch can own) magically reappeared in the final version of the bill, courtesy of the conference committee. None of this is illegal, but we are clearly playing by a new set of rules here. And the Republicans have not been willing to say what the new rules are.

The news media has covered each of these events the same way it covers anything that makes the Machine look bad: They mentioned it. You can find this stuff out if you want to, but if you're not paying attention no one is going to wave a red flag in your face. The media tone is politics-as-usual, which is most definitely not the case.

So what am I afraid of? The Machine becomes unbeatable. They have the money, they write the rules, they appoint the judges, the pundits pander to them, and anyone who thinks differently is some kind of unpatriotic crank. And if an effective opposition somehow does develop, well, those new police powers might come in handy. (You too could become an enemy combatant.)

We're not there yet. Four years from now, we could be.

What we saw in 2002

The Democratic congressional campaign in 2002 paid no attention to the new realities. The Gephardt-Daschle strategy assumed that a little more pandering here and there would do the trick. The Democrats put forward no agenda and stated no principles. Worst of all, they decided not to challenge President Bush. He wasn't on the ballot and he was popular, they figured, so why bring him up?

This is the poll-and-focus-group style of politics. If something is popular you get behind it, or at least you get out of its way. This strategy works fine if you're the majority party. But if the other party gets control of the national agenda and sets the terms of the national political discourse, it doesn't work. Under the current corporate/media/political machine, the Republican message is the political baseline. If the Democrats say nothing about an issue until they take a poll, all the poll reflects is Republican propaganda. Poll-and-focus-group Democrats are letting the Republicans write their platform for them.

Back in 1999, John McCain's pollsters were telling him that he couldn't run on campaign finance reform; nobody cares about procedural issues. But McCain had an insight: People don't care because no one has asked them to care. The Democrats need to learn from this. The poll-and-focus-group logic is circular. Your party's principles may be unpopular, but if you step away from them, how will they ever become popular? A poll can never tell a party on the sidelines how the game will look if it decides to play.

In 2002 the Democrats decided not to play. They didn't challenge Bush on the rush to war, on civil liberties, on national health insurance, or even on his tax cuts for the wealthy. That has to change in 2004.

What I want

I want the Democrats to put forward core principles and stand by them whether they are popular or not. The only way that Democratic principles will ever become popular is if we keep making the case for them year after year. That's how the conservatives got where they are. In every election they stood for the same things: low taxes, strong defense, limited regulation, and traditional sexual/gender values. Some years, in some parts of the country, they got pounded. But in each campaign they convinced a few more people.

What principles would I like to see at the core? Try these:

1. Internationalism. The United States should be a leader in the community of nations, not a rogue state. We should build up international institutions and use them to promote justice, democracy, prosperity, and the rule of law. If an international institution is broken, we should fix or replace it, not abandon it.

2. Opportunity. No one should be born without hope. The race, gender, religion, or economic status of parents should not prevent children from developing their full potential.

3. Equality. A society of winners and losers is unhealthy. It is both traditional and appropriate for the government to promote the growth of the middle class. (This principle goes all the way back to the Homestead Act.) The carrots and sticks of the market make for an efficient economy, but the stakes of the economic game need to be limited. No one should go without food or education or medical care because they lose.

4. Liberty. The rights guaranteed by our constitution should be interpreted as broadly as possible.

5. Openness. Americans are citizens, not subjects. Citizens need to be able to monitor the activities and performance of their government, and to correct that government when it strays from its appropriate mission. All governments need to keep some secrets, but the burden of proof should always be placed on those who want to expand the bounds of secrecy.

6. Environmentalism. No asset is more important than the ability of the biosphere to sustain abundant life. No legacy is more precious than the beauty and richness of the natural world.

How the candidates stack up

I would vote for any of the candidates I've seen – even the ones who have dropped out – over President Bush. In deciding who to support in the primary, I'm looking for

Of the seven remaining Democratic candidates, I can eliminate three right away: Kucinich and Sharpton have no chance to beat Bush, and Lieberman is unreservedly in favor of the Iraq War. (I also have a problem with Lieberman's character. As the Republicans manufacture deceptive issues about Dean and Clark, Lieberman is right there giving them cover.)

That leaves Kerry, Edwards, Dean, and Clark. As you know if you've been reading my previous dispatches, these candidates fall into two tiers for me: I like Dean and Clark much better than Kerry and Edwards. But let's take them one at a time.

John Edwards. Edwards has two positions that give me trouble: He voted for the Iraq War, and I didn't like his answer to my question about the Patriot Act. Edwards thinks that the Patriot Act is basically OK, but that the Justice Department has abused it. I think we should be a government of laws, not men. If a bad attorney general can take my rights away, then something is wrong with the law.

Edwards also has some noteworthy strengths: He has packaged his message better than any of the other candidates. Whoever the Democrats nominate should steal his line about re-uniting the two Americas. He must have been a fabulous courtroom attorney; he thinks well on his feet and would probably do very well in a one-on-one debate with Bush. His son-of-a-mill-worker biography works well against Bush's fake folksiness.

Unlike some people, I award no points for a southern accent. I think the idea that any Democrat is going to take the South is silly. We ran a Tennessee native last time and still lost Tennessee by four points. In Georgia, Democratic ex-senator Zell Miller endorsed Bush without even waiting to see who our nominee is. Forget about the South. The Democrats win in 2004 by recapturing all of Gore's states and adding one or more of Ohio, Florida, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Arizona.

John Kerry. I wish I could figure out what Kerry started doing right three weeks ago. I saw him last April and again in August. His position on the war seemed very muddled: He voted for the war resolution, but for some reason expected Bush to proceed rationally and responsibly. And yet he won't come out and say that Bush duped him. He used the capture of Saddam to criticize Dean's opposition to the war, but he's still criticizing the war himself. It looks to me like he's for the war in weeks when it goes well, and against it in weeks when it goes badly. This is focus-group politics. Thirty-five years ago John Kerry was a brave warrior, but he is a timid politician.

Wesley Clark. I think Clark is the candidate the Bush people really fear. He has spent the last two weeks fending off bogus issues manufactured by the Republicans and their press allies (with Lieberman providing cover).

The gist of the recent accusations is that he keeps changing his position on the war. Quotes from his September 2002 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee and his April 2003 article in the Times of London have been packaged to make it look like he supported the war. Unlike most of the professional journalists, I did my homework before believing or repeating the story: I read the transcript of the testimony and looked up the Times article. On this basis, I can say that there is no issue here. When you see the Clark quotes in their proper context, they are consistent with his current opposition to the war.

For example, here's a different quote from that Times article: "But remember, this was all about weapons of mass destruction. They haven't yet been found. It was to continue the struggle against terror, bring democracy to Iraq, and create change, positive change, in the Middle East. And none of that is begun, much less completed."

And here's an exchange from Clark's congressional testimony:

SAXTON: Mr. Perle, General Clark indicated a few minutes ago that he wasn't sure -- I'm sorry, I don't want to mischaracterize what General Clark said, but something to the effect that we don't have information that Al Qaida and the Iraqi regime are connected. Is that a fair characterization, General Clark?

CLARK: I'm saying there hasn't been any substantiation of the linkage of the Iraqi regime to the events of 9/11 or the fact that they are giving weapons of mass destruction capability to Al Qaida, yes sir.

Unlike Kerry, Clark has a clear position on the war and sticks with it: It was a mistake. The Iraq War distracts us from the War on Terror. Saddam was a problem, but not an urgent one. If we eventually had to overthrow him by force, we could have taken our time and assembled a genuine coalition, rather than just the British and a bunch of munchkins. (All right, I'm editorializing. Clark doesn't actually say "munchkins".)

Clark's strengths include his resume as a four-star general, his intelligence, and his ability to talk about values without sounding phony. (Again, no points for being from the South.) His main weakness is that he had no stated opinions on domestic issues until he started running for president, so we don't know if he's committed to his domestic agenda for the long term. Personally, I give him the benefit of the doubt.

In general, I like Clark's positions on the issues better than Kerry's or Edwards', and I think he is at least as electable as either of them. So it comes down to Clark or Dean.

Howard Dean. Dean and Clark look identical to me on the issues. And more than any other candidate, Dean has shown that he's willing to stand by what he believes in the face of adversity. Whether Dean is the nominee or not, the Democrats are indebted to him for putting some spine into the party after the polite disaster of 2002.

The stereotype is that Dean's candidacy is about Iraq and anger against Bush. That stereotype is lazy journalism. It leaves out his entire record as Governor of Vermont: getting health insurance for nearly all the state's children, balancing the budget, and so on. Dean's stump speech revolves around his record in Vermont. His point is that these problems aren't unsolvable; we've just let ourselves get talked into thinking they're unsolvable.

The post-Iowa, post-scream question about Dean is whether his candidacy is in a terminal dive or not. If New Hampshire rejects him by a wide margin – if, say, he finishes third or worse – I think it's over for Dean. If we stand by him, though, like New Hampshire stood by Bill Clinton in 1992, it goes a long way toward putting the Iowa issues behind him.

And what are those issues exactly? I’ve watched Dean's Iowa speech almost a dozen times by now, and I'm not seeing a character problem. For months prior to Iowa, every major news story about Dean described him as “angry,” a characterization which (having seen him live three times), I don't understand. Howard Dean is not an angry candidate. George Wallace was an angry candidate. Ross Perot had his moments. Pat Buchanan could get riled. Dean is not in that league. What Dean inspires in a crowd isn't anger, it's courage. You watch him and think, “Why can't I say what I believe too?”

If you watch the Iowa speech without that Dean-is-angry media filter, the whole issue goes away. He's not ranting, he's cheerleading. (This is even more obvious if you watch the unedited two-minute version of the speech at The man is smiling, for God's sake. The biggest thing I can fault him for is playing to the room rather than to the cameras. I don't see any can-we-trust-this-man-with-the-bomb issue.

But what about the second level of damage? Is the angry-wacko-Dean meme so widespread now that it dooms his candidacy whether it's true or not? That's what we're trying to hash out this week in New Hampshire. It's a mirrors-reflecting-mirrors thing; I find myself watching other people and wondering what they think I think they think.

I've done that for three days now, and here's what I think: I'm standing by him.

I think it's not a coincidence that bogus Dean-is-angry stories started circulating when he became the front-runner, and that Clark-flip-flop stories got manufactured as soon as he started to rise. There is an opinion-creating machine out there, and it is going to tar any Democrat who looks like a threat. If Kerry breaks out, we'll start seeing those Kerry-is-aloof, he-can't-connect-with-people stories again. I'm sure there are Edwards-the-ambulance-chaser stories waiting in the wings. Remember the bogus Gore-claims-he-invented-the-Internet stories? And Gore-is-aloof, he-can't-connect-with-people? Whoever the Democrats nominate is going to have to wade through this kind of stuff.

Let's start wading now. I'm not willing to let the Machine pick my candidate for me. I'm going to pick him myself.

Howard Dean.

Doug Muder
  23 January 2004

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