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May 02, 2005

Nominating Our Worst Nightmare

When researching George Allen yesterday, I saw him regularly described as the Democrats' worst nightmare. Not so. Our worst nightmares aren't nominated in Republican primaries, but in our own. To understand that, a more critical look at John Kerry is in order. So for those who haven't absorbed Thomas Frank's latest 21-gun salute to populism, there's no time like the present. His election retrospective in the latest New York Review of Books is certainly one of the best I've seen, and even if he hits the same notes he always does, he's done a much better job constructing the rhythm to match the election's ebbs and flows.

Frank has been marginalized as a single-idea commentator, a pundit whose work can be safely assumed sans reading. Not so. In fact, Frank's weakest area is, unfortunately, what everyone seems to focus on in his books and columns. His solution, that a renewed emphasis on class warfare -- a term I don't use pejoratively -- and protectionist populism will blunt the GOP's culture attacks, isn't the greatest idea contemporary political commentators have produced. Protectionism, for instance, can have nasty consequences (so, for that matter, can free trade), like ethnic scapegoating and poor economic policy, and you don't want to whip people into such a frenzy over trade that you lose the ability to legislate honestly and in the country's best interest. Class warfare is powerful and we need more of it, but it's no cure-all either.

But if Frank reaches for substantive solutions that don't always ring true, what comes before retains its immense diagnostic clarity. What Frank gets, and what Democrats too often don't, is that we fail by nominating candidates who're manifestations of our worst stereotypes. Kerry, good man though he is, remains an alien aristocrat in bearing and speech. It's not like Gore, who you could argue was simply painted with a particular brush during a particular election. This is, and always has been, Kerry.

Kerry's air of aristocracy has followed him for years, all the way back to his Vietnam activism.

Frank finds, for instance, a passage in Michael Novak's Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, a classic rightwing screed published in 1972, describing Kerry's legendary debate with Swift Boater John O'Neill:

Comparison was immediately drawn between Kerry's Yale pedigree, good looks, smooth speech, powerful connections, and the limited resources, plainness of manner, ordinariness of John O'Neill.

We nominated, in other words, the perfect aristocrat. Not all aristocrats, after all, are created equal. Some maintain their money and connections without wearing the years spent at cotillion classes on the cufflinks. Kerry wasn't one. And what Franks understands about him is that the frame Kerry tapped into, the heuristics he invoked, destabilized his national security credentials as surely as they invalidated his populism. If the elite liberal, in common imagination, is a relativistic, blame-America-first, out-of-touch perpetuator of a detached upper class, then Kerry, by virtue of having the background and bearing of an elite liberal, was bound by every one of those perceptions. Didn't matter if he had a strong foreign policy and a populist economic agenda, so long as he didn't look the part, neither would be believed. And so they weren't. In early 2004, we talked about the race to define Kerry, how we needed to do it before Bush did. Well, he got the chance, Kerry defined Kerry, and it was deadly. Because Kerry, unfortunately, was inescapably close to the guy Republicans would have defined him as.

If we want to win future elections, we're going to have to take Frank seriously. But more than Frank, we're going to have to take Republicans seriously. Because what they get that we, and Frank, miss, is that the heuristics matter more than the policies. If the Republican looks, talks, and walks like a good ol' boy, voters will find their point of populist agreement and ignore their spots, or swaths, of disagreement. Republicans have leveraged culture as the ground where their battalions of brush-clearers can solidify voter impressions of their "American-ness". They understand that the impression comes first and, if that dog hunts, the issues of agreement confirming "one of us" status will be found regardless. Democrats are trying to exhibit all their economic confirmation issues, but are doing so without making the all-too-crucial first impression. And when done in that order, confirmation remains an impossible dream. As does the presidency.

May 2, 2005 in Electoral Politics | Permalink


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Yes, exactly, Ezra!

Read this Salon article on Brian Schweitzer in April 05.

Look, I started this out by saying that Democrats can win if they lead with their hearts. Let people feel you! Don't try to verbalize. Let them feel you first.

Bob Brigham (Swing State Project) seems to come to the same conclusion, although he'd be happy with Schweitzer as party manager.

Kos sums up his reaction:

Incredible interview, all the way through. I want Schweitzer in '08, though I'm also pretty sure we aren't going to have that choice.

I believe Bush largely was able to get voters to forget his privileged background and rally to him by his 'average guy' pose and tough stance on national security and terrorism - even though his words and performance on those two issues was hollow or disastrous.

A Dem. "real guy" (with good liberal instincts) can make Dems viable in places where we need to win.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 2, 2005 3:11:51 PM

Not all aristocrats, after all, are create equal. Some maintain their money and connections without displaying the years spent at cotillion classes. Kerry wasn't one.

Bush, obviously, is one of them who's able to do that. One problem with trying to replicate that sort of thing is that Bush largely does it through flat-out anti-intellectualism, which doesn't bother anyone in the Republican coalition, since even their own intellectuals are largely anti-intellectual. Not so easy for a Dem to pull off.

Posted by: Haggai | May 2, 2005 3:19:50 PM

George Allen may become Bush's worst nightmare as the Senator said he was against the Bush-Pozen plan to cut Soc. Sec. benefits for the middle class. Of course, Sen. Dodd said this proposal was already dead in the Senate.

Posted by: pgl | May 2, 2005 3:53:06 PM

Republicans have leveraged culture as the ground where their battalions of brush-clearers can solidify voter impressions of their "American-ness".

There is a reason for this. Over the last few decades, the average schmo has seen his culture destroyed by the left. Abortions upon demand, the push for homosexual marriage, etc. has left him bewildered. Is there any real surprise that the Republicans can appeal to "real Americans" by fighting the culture war?

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | May 2, 2005 4:01:42 PM

I thought it was an interesting article, also. But I disagree with the assumption that many Republican voters feel like Reagan: they didn’t leave the Democratic Party, it left them. That’s not true, he and his fellow Americans did leave the party -- in principles.

The Democratic Party has (at least for the last 100+ years) been the party of the disenfranchised. The recent loses in the election is a direct result of Democratic Party successes in the previous century. The liberals in the Democratic Party fought for the rights of workers to bargain collectively for a decent wage and working conditions. They got it, provided for the families, and their children and grandchildren prospered enough to accumulate wealth and live a higher standard of living. In effect they became good Republicans. No doubt there are old union men turning over in the grave at what their descendants are doing.

The Democratic Party continues to be the party of the disenfranchised, disadvantaged, and under represented. It is the party of conscientious government for the environment and natural resources. We can only hope that people will wake up and realize that there are worse traits a politician can have than tree hugging or a bleeding heart before losing everything their ancestors fought so hard to obtain. And pray God protect us from faith based government.

Posted by: scou29c | May 2, 2005 4:06:19 PM

George Allen comes off kind of creepy. Someone like Chuck Hagel would be our worst nightmare (if he could get past the southern primaries, which I realize is a big if)

It's deliciously ironic if you think about it, the way the south might very well become the downlfall of the Republican party over the next few years, by blocking possible nominees like Hagel, that would almost certainly take the WH.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, Bush's appeal to ESPN moderate men is a million times more potent than his appeal to religious zealots. If the Republicans nominate a creepy religious guy with no charisma, he'll get crushed.

Posted by: Woody | May 2, 2005 4:12:24 PM

Exactly, Ezra. Which is why the wrong guy was at the top of our ticket in '04

The wealthy aristocratic well-connected Senator would have been perfect as the seasoned hand on the tiller of an Edwards campaign. Only Edwards matched up our party's rhetoric with his own personal story.

Posted by: Drfranklives | May 2, 2005 4:21:41 PM

I agree that heuristics matter, but I must disagree with this:
"In early 2004, we talked about the race to define Kerry, how we needed to do it before Bush did. Well, he got the chance, Kerry defined Kerry, and it was deadly. Because Kerry, unfortunately, was inescapably close to the guy Republicans would have defined him as."

Once he wrapped up the nomination, Kerry went silent to save money. Bush went into full scale smear mode and Kerry's ratings went into a long slide. Bush won the race to define Kerry, and I think it proved decisive. I think Kerry miscalculated in 2 ways. First, he thought nobody was paying attention so it would not matter. And second, he seemed to expect Bush to pay some price for running such a relentlessly negative and lie filled campaign. He was wrong. Kerry the person was not perfect but he could have won with a better campaign and with a media that approximated functionality.

Posted by: TJon | May 2, 2005 4:36:51 PM

That Franks piece has been bothering me since I read it. So let me try to sort out my reactions here.

I conceed that his overall diagnosis of the nature of class politics/resentment is convincing. But I don't think it's enough to say, "But if Franks reaches for substantive solutions that don't always ring true, what comes before retains its immense diagnostic clarity"

I think that it is important to, in debate speak, show the "harms" created by a given action.

In particular Frank's column doesn't help me answer any of the most important questions that I have about the election.

1) Would the democrate have won if they had nominated someone other than Kerry for the presidency.

2) Were there ways in which advocacy groups outside of the Kerry campaign could have been more effective in helping Kerry win?

3) How many of the people who disliked Kerry's demeanor would have voted for someone with Kerry's other traits with a more "folksy" demeanor.

4) Did Kerry's weaknesses only reflect badly on him or did they hurt the Democratic party "brand"?

To answer any of those questions requires asking not only, "did X pose a problem for the democrats?" but also, "what were the altenatives to X."

On the level of personal reaction, I find myself getting aggrivated by analysis that assumes that it's possible for John Kerry, for example -- the same applies to Howard Dean, to make changes in one area of their style without affecting anything else.

Frank says, for example, "From the dying Massachusetts mill towns of 1972 to the dying Ohio steel towns of 2004, the backlash response to John Kerry would remain remarkably consistent. To judge by the candidate's actions, though, it was as if none of it had ever happened. Kerry had been hounded his entire career for being a snooty, distant aristocrat, but like so many of his Democratic colleagues, he seemed to take little notice."

It makes it sound like Kerry could have just snapped his fingers and stopped coming across as an elite. I would assume that Kerry knows that there are parts of his style that create challenges for himself and that if he doesn't make changes it's either because he thinks they have other benefits or because that's a fundamental part of Kerry's personality and he isn't able to change it -- not because he's unaware of the issue.

I don't think there's anything wrong with noting that Kerry has his strengths and weaknesses.

Let me make a basketball analogy. Shaq has been in the league for 12 years. He still can't consistently hit a free throw. Which do you think is easier, learning to shoot a free throw or learning to present oneself in way that defuses Frank's cultural backlash? I'd argue that the latter is much, much harder to do. Yet basketball fans, as much as they criticize shaq for not being able to hit free throws, acknowledge that he has his strengths and would still put him near the top of the list of players you would want if you were building a team from scratch.

I think Kerry had his strengths. To my eye one of the most important was that Kerry looked like he was the opposite of "rash" -- cautious and careful. I think if they had succeeded in painting GWB as someone who was reckless and out of control they would have created a dynamic that was extremely favorable to Kerry's strengths. That they failed to make enough people believe that about GWB hardly makes Kerry "our worst nightmare."

Posted by: NickS | May 2, 2005 4:56:27 PM

This does seem to smack a bit of swallowing the oppositions talking points. Yes Kerry's opponents have repeatedly used the aristocrat attack, but what does that mean? Does it mean he is a snob? He had a pretty good winning streak going, suggesting some ability to connect with voters. If you prompted most people with the name John Kerry during the election, they would probably respond with "flip-flopper". Does that mean he is a flip-flopper? He was also tagged as a phony. So the ultra-spoiled legacy Yalie who invents a Southern accent and pretends to chew tobacco is both genuine and a good old boy, while Kerry is both a phony and a snob. I think Kerry ran against an incredibly succesful smear machine given free reign by the media and he just barely lost. The lesson I take is more tactical. He didn't fight back until it was too late. Some say Edwards would have been better and his biography was compelling. But whos to say that after the Rove treatment the hueristic wouldn't have become "slimy lawyer" rather than "self-made guy". Two elections in a row they have taken very experienced and credentialled politicians and made them look like incompetent campaigners. Is it coincidence, or are they, now that they have the media completely bamboozled, really good at defining the opponent in such a way that it makes it hard for them to campaign?

Posted by: TJon | May 2, 2005 5:34:20 PM

Frank's book 'What's the Matter with Kansas' opens with a chapter of snide, contemptuous, arrogant, belittling, self-important rhetoric that could turn off anyone even vaguely on the fence about policy issues. He's certainly an interesting choice to be getting 'style' tips from in shaping Democratic subtext.

For my money, what hurt Kerry's candidacy was his unwillingness to get down into a straight up brawl with Bush. Time and again he ceeded that Bush had good intentions but hinted graciously that he achieved bad outcomes. Kerry should have started a broadside attack on Bush's motives, his character, and his legitimacy. Then he should have followed up by characterizing his entire campaign effort as a sham meant to tart up a Harvard educated oligarch as an everyman. He should have gone negative, hard, early, and put the other side on the defensive. His tendency to let himself get put on the defensive on stupid issues let the negativity stick to him.

But more importantly, we needed a real democratic leadership in the house and the congress to have the candidates' back during the campaign. With Daschle fighting for his life and the party thrashing around between very pro war and moderately pro war, there wasn't a differentiation to be gained.

Just as ceeding all but the battleground states allowed the republicans to focus their money, failing to differentiate on the war, and on the gross profiteering by administration linked firms allowed them to not have to defend their actions so they could spend all their time attacking.

The way to defeat the next faux-populist southerner with folksy charm and corrupt allies is not to put another one up against him so that people can't tell the difference. They key is to differentiate on something that people get fired up about. Something that the other guy doesn't want to talk about. Make him waste his time talking about energy policy, his sordid past, or his economic plan.

We need to have candidates who stop acting like there's nothing at stake.

Posted by: Michael McLawhorn | May 2, 2005 6:10:55 PM

But Robert Borosage made the important point that if a patrician can get past the initial resistance and make the sale that they "get it" and care about regular Americans, then you're in very powerful, JFK-FDR territory. Americans *like* being defended by patricians, if they can connect or are attracted to or can trust the patrician candidate.

I don't think Kerry was a bad candidate (nor was he an outstandingly great one). I think there was a strong "don't rock the boat" vibe before the election among white & middle-class Americans. Americans are a little too deeply in debt for their comfort, and didn't want to cause any jitters to corporations or the financial markets. Combined with the the fact that there were no terror attacks on American soil post 9/11, and with the fact that many Americans might have felt that the terrorists might view Bush being toppled as a change-of-course/weakening of resolve, and the fact that the revered & respected military-officer-establishment was heavily backing Bush, that all led to a strong "don't rock the boat" sentiment.

That also partly explains why Bush's ratings have tanked recently. People voted for him because they were anxious about the future and didn't want change. Instead, after the election, Bush is strutting around bragging "Ah won me some capital, there's going to be big changes around here!" Meanwhile, the debt/dollar/inflation/oil chickens are slowly coming to roost, people are getting more and more nervous, and Bush is obsessing over the "problem" of Social Security while ignoring the real problems that people are actually worrying about.

Posted by: roublen vesseau | May 2, 2005 8:35:50 PM

Kerry ran the best campaign he could, and to his credit he did not talk down to the American people. When he did exhibit his "down home" side, as when he went hunting, he was belittled by the "liberal" press. That same "liberal" press gave exhorbitant coverage to the patently false allegations of the Swift Boat veterans, and downplayed Kerry's legitimate war record. Kerry decisively bested Bush in all three debates. Bush, on the other hand, can hardly put two sentences together, and has trouble articulating his own policies. Public opinion polls before the election showed deep concerns about the turn things had taken in Iraq, and about the shaky economy. And yet Americans (those who go to the polls) voted for Bush in sufficient numbers to return him to office. Instead of trying to Monday-morning quarterback the Kerry campaign, the Democrats should be taking a long hard look at more systemic problems such as: an uninformed and apathetic electorate; an increasingly acquiescent and ineffective press corps; and, perhaps most important, the unwillingness of politicians (of all stripes) AND the press to stand up for secular values and true religious tolerance in the face of homegrown fundamentalism.

Posted by: zeke | May 2, 2005 10:17:55 PM

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