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March 28, 2005

Bad Matt, Bad Dean

Matt's explosion of opprobrium towards my earlier post on Dean deserves a response. Suffice to say there are two schools of thought on Dean's ascension to the chairmanship: mine, which is that Dean is a highly effective media representative and his primary role should be spokesperson, and Matt's, which is that Dean is an enormously ineffective media rep and should keep his goddamn head down so he doesn't paint the left as liberal. Matt's quite pleased that Dean's proving invisible and apparently focusing on the technocratic responsibilities of the job because he believes that if Dean jumps onto the scene Rove will "wet his pants", assumedly from glee rather than fear.

Maybe so. But likely not. To start, Dean is very good in front of the cameras. Aside from the Scream, which has colored a lot of perceptions, Dean was an enormously capable speaker and debater. More to the point, he was brilliantly clear at delivering his message. That was, if you remember, the center of the pro-Dean argument -- he knew what he stood for amidst a party that didn't. The reason for Dean's clarity is that he's a public pugilist, a simple speaker who likes to attack and pummel his opponent's points. Democrats are desperately in need of just that. It relates to the Rude Pundit's graphic post from this morning, when you've got your opponent on the ground, you don't put your hands in your pockets, whistle a triumphant tune and walk away. You finish the job. Democrats desperately need to close the Social Security fight in a way that strengthens the Democratic brand. But we need some of our people hitting the television in order to do so. As it is, we've got no recognizable, ubiquitous representatives trying to drive the debate. The only one who has the star power to do so, at least theoretically, is Hillary, and she's hanging back in anticipation of 08.

Maybe Matt's fine with that -- I dunno. But I've little interest in just beating back privatization as a policy, I want to smash it as a philosophy. And until we've got some public -- rather than legislative -- strategy for moving that attack forward, we're going to lose our chance on Social Security. When Republicans killed health care, they had Gingrich to twist the knife and, indeed, rip out the heart. His brand of hyper-partisan, wholly public warfare was critical in making Clinton's defeat a Democratic disaster, rather than a foiled piece of legislation. We've got no analogue. And that's why the Social Security fight is hurting us as surely as the Republicans.

What? You didn't know that? Amid all the recent celebration over Social Security, here's some polling you may have missed. Americans don't trust Democrats on Social Security any more than they did before this began. It's simply astonishing that the numbers haven't changed since 1998. Worse, approval of the Democratic leadership in Congress has actually gone down, even among Democrats. Only 37% of voters approve of our titular heads, compared with 38% two months ago and 47% two years ago. Among Democrats, 56% approve, a year ago, 63% approved. Republicans, at 39%, are faring little better, but why the hell are they faring a little better? And why, amidst a stunning victory, are our numbers moving in the wrong direction, even among our partisans?

We here in Blogland have been very happy, very pleased, over the Democrats' performance. But gains in the fight over Social Security have not become Democratic gains. Our message on Social Security, at least the portion that applies to our party vs. the Republican party, isn't getting out. So Matt may want Dean to keep quiet, but he'd better change his reasoning. So far as the Party is concerned, things are not "going quite well so far". In fact, they're going surprisingly badly. As a Party, we desperately need someone with star power able and willing to articulate our agenda and message. Reid isn't the guy, Pelosi ain't the girl. Hillary is worried about herself, Kerry is damaged goods and Obama's too young. That leaves Dean, the very guy entrusted with the party's health. And it'd be a shame if he passed on the responsibility.

March 28, 2005 in Democrats | Permalink


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» Johnny, where are ye now? from The Ethical Werewolf
As Matt and Ezra argue about whether Howard Dean should be appearing in public to bash privatization, I can't help but think about the man I wish was in position to be the public face of this fight. [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 28, 2005 4:51:58 PM


I don't recall any other party chairman being too visible in a non-election year. Maybe Tony Coehlo years ago. But, you're right to point out that the Dems on the hill have little in the way of camera talent.

Posted by: Roxanne | Mar 28, 2005 2:50:04 PM

What people always seem to forget about Dean is that up until the scream every "gaffe" he made was not only correct, but seemed to make him stronger. The people on TV would all bitch and moan about how crazy and offensive Dean was, but people on the ground always seemed to like what he had to say, likely because it was plain spoken truth. He doesn't beat around the bush like most politicians, and unlike "plain-spoken" W he's usually telling the truth. Guess what... Iraq wasn't safer after Saddam was captured and the Dems do need to go after those guys with confederate flags on their pick-ups.

It's too bad we didn't run Dean, because if we were going to lose we could have at least lost with someone who would stand up and say things plainly, and have the courage to bash Bush when he deserved it. What glorious debates those would have been.

So yeah, I've never quite understood the insistence that Dean is a bad public speaker, nor the lack of willingness on the part of other Dems to stand behind him when he is clearly right. Maybe everyone is right and we are just total wimps.

I probably should have posted this on Yglesias' blog. Oh well.

Posted by: The Little One | Mar 28, 2005 3:02:32 PM

I've lost track. Is stating that we were no safer than before Saddam's capture still a gaffe or verbal misstatement?

Sorry, trying to keep track.

And when will people discover that *it doesn't matter who the spokesperson is* -- the GOP will still try to tar them. I mean, Daschle was probably the most affable, accomodational, Red State Democrat possible and he was painted as overly liberal and obstructionist. And he lost.

Hey, why don't we try being an actual party in opposition rather than just being paranoid about how the others will portray us.

PS: Dean's success or failure has to do with fundraising. Any ideas on how much he's raised?

Posted by: Chris Rasmussen | Mar 28, 2005 3:35:35 PM

This is not necessarily evidence that Dean speaking up would improve the Democrats' numbers.

Posted by: praktike | Mar 28, 2005 3:36:13 PM

My understanding from the MSM was that Pelosi and Reid told Dean his job was to raise money and STFU and that Dean agreed to that when he was gunning for the job. But raising a lot of money does no good if you don't have a message and Dean is one of the few Dems in the last 2 years who has had one - now buried under the scramble to hump in the middle.

Posted by: Cagey | Mar 28, 2005 3:48:45 PM

"My understanding from the MSM was that Pelosi and Reid told Dean his job was to raise money and STFU and that Dean agreed to that when he was gunning for the job."

That sounds like total crap. By the time he was meeting with Pelosi and Reid, he had gathered so much support that he was in a position to dictate terms to Pelosi and Reid, rather than receive them. If you gathered otherwise from the MSM, no wonder, seeing as the MSM has wanted Dean's fall since before and after the scream.

Much more likely is that Dean agreed to lay low for the time being. To agree to do so permanently would be foolish and more importantly, non-Deanish. Wouldnabeprudent.

I agree with you Ezra, and feel this is just another surrogate for Matt's debate with you on Dean in the first place.

Posted by: Nash | Mar 28, 2005 4:10:06 PM

Praktike -- Indeed not. But it is evidence that what we're doing now isn't working. And it's my contention that putting a fighter like Dean out there to press home the point would work better.

Posted by: Ezra | Mar 28, 2005 4:15:25 PM

Matt's, which is that Dean is an enormously ineffective media rep and should keep his goddamn head down so he doesn't paint the left as liberal.

This is putting words in his mouth. He said that Dean is not particularly good at media and messaging -- nothing about being "too liberal."

Posted by: Realish | Mar 28, 2005 4:28:59 PM

I'd have to agree; we need a spokesman with charisma. Dean packs the house everywhere he goes; he's right AND accurate. But I can understand the "one-year probation" angle. Let's let him get his feet wet with the DNC, and then perhaps the Nancy & Harry show will be the supporting cast members of "The Return of the '06 Dems" - starring Howard Dean. The only other person I see who might make a dent is (relatively unknown) Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer. My chips are with Dean.

Posted by: Aurona | Mar 28, 2005 4:52:43 PM


What is it you have against Newt and his "hyper partisanship"?

Can you blame a politician for acting like a politician (and doing it well)?

Anyway didn't Clinton publicly call the GOP the "enemy" soon after being elected. Not to mention Mitchell's agressive opposition to Bush Snr.

BTW Why did you have to bring Obama into this? Can't you give the guy a chance to show what he's made of before mentioning his name, try saying Salazar instead. That's SALAZAR - S A L A Z A R!

Posted by: Boethius | Mar 28, 2005 5:20:51 PM

You're right. Bush AND Congress have lousy approval ratings right now. The public (not the MSM) would really appreciate hearing from a straight talking reformer. Dean will be a great party spokesman. People may disagree with him, but they feel they know where he stands. Besides, I want a REAL Democrat on TV - not Biden or Lieberman.

Posted by: Marvyt | Mar 28, 2005 8:30:31 PM

Dean's getting his stuff together and letting the Party figure out if it can live without him as its spokesperson. As it turns out, it can't, but we need to establish that fact more thoroughly.

Posted by: Kimmitt | Mar 28, 2005 9:38:16 PM

Ezra, Dean was *terrible* at delivering his message. What the hell was his message? It was diffuse. Stuff about taking America back (from what? I know, but what did he say? 10 different things), saying "Why is BUsh doing X,YZ? It's wrong!!!" without saying what he would do that's *right." He said things like "I'm gonna go talk to people about X".....you don't say that, you go DO it. He was actually awful. How else did he piss people off

Not to say that his candidacy wasn't worthwhile....just that everything that was wrong with it was about his lack of understanding of message discipline. (hmm....and maybe field strategy too, but I digress.....) And the content of his message itself, which was muddy, however implicitly true when you parsed it. His fans had no trouble parsing it. Regular Dem voters did have trouble parsing it.

Has he learned? Maybe. But you are giving him far too much credit. Note that this is not to deny that he has skills and abilities.....it's just that message is not among them. He is well suited to his current role as designed. I'm beginning to question your judgement in a serious way. It's as if you wrote a post saying, "Look, it's good that Milli Vanilli perform at the Super Bowl because they're great singers. They made a hit....they know what they're doing......"

Posted by: Foaming At The Mouth | Mar 28, 2005 10:09:07 PM

I've little interest in just beating back privatization as a policy...

Yeah, and I don't really want to just help my fiance get over her grandfather's death, so much as I want to revive the man.

Posted by: letters | Mar 29, 2005 12:52:59 AM

Matt Y and Ezra K. Still thinking they can beat the Rs with the "Meet the Press" audience. Take off those blinders, boys. Can you name the Sunday morning activity conducted by a huge (used to be the majority, but maybe not now) number of Americans? It ain't watching the political shows.

Dean is out exactly where he should be, doing exactly what needs to be done. Grass roots, baybee. They benefit from personal attention, not performing on teevee.

Posted by: Mary Mary | Mar 29, 2005 9:23:19 AM

Matt Y and Ezra K. Still thinking they can beat the Rs with the "Meet the Press" audience. Take off those blinders, boys. Can you name the Sunday morning activity conducted by huge (used to be the majority, but maybe not now) numbers of Americans? It ain't watching the political shows.

Dean is out exactly where he should be, doing exactly what needs to be done. Grass roots, baybee. They benefit from personal attention, not performing on teevee so the talking heads (and I'm including out-of-touch bloggers, here) can talk some more.

Posted by: Mary Mary | Mar 29, 2005 9:25:09 AM

Nash -- Yeah, as far as I ever saw the MSM wanted Dean's fall since the moment Dean spoke openly about restoring media regulation.

Foaming -- Sounds like you've been listening to the shit the media makes up about Dean instead of the actual words he actually said. "Oh lawsy what does he believe we don't know anything about him, never mind that he keeps giving all these speeches that tell us about him, we just don't know!"

They pulled that "he has no plan" crap on Kerry, too.

Posted by: Oh Snap! | Mar 29, 2005 11:43:02 AM

Foaming -

Dean was very good at getting his message out. His supporters understood it well enough and so did his Democratic opponents. His message rattled them to badly that they joined with the Republicans to destroy his candidacy.

Ezra -

Why bother with anything Matt Y writes? He is a CW writer and usually wrong.

Posted by: James E. Powell | Mar 29, 2005 2:00:11 PM

Dean was effective at playing the insurgent candidate -- the field was ripe for someone with more charisma than Dennis Kucinich to step forward as the representative of the "Democratic Wing" of the party. But Dean wasn't effective at adapting to becoming the frontrunner as the campaign evolved. He still had his Army of true believers, but I think he failed to solidify and expand his base. A lot of the poll support he received at his peak proved to be ephemeral.

Yes, Dean was an effective stump speaker and yes Dean is better in front of the cameras than a Kucinich, but the latter is not saying much. Dean is far from being a telegenic politician -- his smiles often seem forced and his TV interview answers often don't flow smoothly.

Posted by: Bragan | Mar 29, 2005 2:43:32 PM

"Dean is far from being a telegenic politician -- his smiles often seem forced and his TV interview answers often don't flow smoothly."

In sharp contrast with whom? The current occupant of the White House? John Kerry?

Posted by: James E. Powell | Mar 29, 2005 2:47:09 PM

As much as I detest Dubya, I do believe he is more telegenic than Dean. I can't stand Dubya's fake cowboy schtick, but it sadly appeals to many voters and pundits.

Kerry too, despite some of his terribly rambling speeches, is more telegenic than Dean, particularly in a debate format, though also in a TV Q&A.

Posted by: Bragan | Mar 29, 2005 3:38:00 PM

Bragan -

Telegenic is too subjective for us to argue about, but I will concede that Howard Dean is not a major TV star. But when you mentioned forced smiles and "interview answers [that] often don't flow smoothly" I had to object.

Posted by: James E. Powell | Mar 29, 2005 6:12:50 PM

Uh, guys, what was his message? In one sentence? I followed the campaign *very* closely. I met Howard Dean in NH in '02 and saw him live with audiences.

He was bad on message. His sound bites varied; he made policy arguments. His *implicit* message worked for you. It did not resonate with most voters. He had a brief fling with a philosophy of gov't in '03, soon abandoned for tactics. His message problems were not unlike Kerry's. I'm not the one enslaved to the media take on Dean; if anything the guy above is enslaved to the hagiographic blogosphere take on Dean - he was so good he "scared" people.

In short, good guy, interesting candidacy, triple-A skills, some big media blunders....good enough to win a statewide. Not Presidential campaign timber. If I'm so wrong, where were the votes? If I'm so wrong, then "the people" are idiots for not electing Dean. And if you think the people are idiots, you can't function in politics; you don't understand the game; you think it's something it's not.

Posted by: Foaming At The Mouth | Mar 29, 2005 10:41:43 PM

Uh, Foaming, what was KERRY'S message? HMMM? MR. FLIP FLOPPER?

Posted by: Carol | Apr 15, 2005 2:09:01 AM

I just wanted to add that Dean's message was QUITE clear:

You can't trust Republicans with your money.
No Child Left Behind is leaving EVERY child behind.
The war in Iraq was a BAD idea and we should never have gone in but now that we have we can't just up and leave. We need some allies there, some help from the blue hats, etc.
The tax cuts only gave about $300 on average back to most people and the increases in the state and local taxes, in tuition, in health care, etc. escalated well beyond any "tax cut".
No one invests in a country with a balance sheet like Argentina's--the deficit is ruining long-term investment in our country and what's more China owns most of it as it is.
If every other industrialized nation in the world can afford universal health care for its citizens, then why can't we? WE CAN DO BETTER THAN THIS.
The world isn't safer with Saddam Hussein gone; in fact, we are under more threat from terror than before.

Should I go on?


Posted by: Carol | Apr 15, 2005 2:14:02 AM

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