We Know What You Did Last Summer

January 16, 2004

Comes now an incisive dose of the conventional wisdom on the Democratic primaries . . . circa August 2003. Unfortunately, it’s also the thesis of a piece that was published today. The analysis, by John Harris of The Washington Post, amounts to little more than a regurgitation of what we’ve been hearing since the dog days of summer — additionally, it reads disturbingly like Wes Clark’s talking points.

Harris first informs readers that the Democrats have a choice between nominating the more radical candidate who will fire up the base and attract new voters (Dean) or the more centrist candidate who will win over swing voters (anyone but Dean.) He then opines that “The question haunting Dean . . . is whether he stands any chance of exerting appeal beyond core Democrats who share his strong opposition to the Iraq war and his liberal social views.”

It’s also abundantly clear which of the two strategies Harris prefers. “Skeptics in several campaigns,” Harris tells us, “said Dean’s idea that Democrats can spark a liberal renaissance by dramatically increasing turnout is a hope to which many have clung for decades — a dream that never dies but never comes true.” Note the artful formulation, which puts the last clause (“a dream that never dies but never comes true”) so far from its attribution (skeptics in several campaigns) that it reads as an assertion of plain fact. Harris next quotes, approvingly and at length, Wesley Clark’s communications director, who tells him, unsurprisingly, “There’s not enough base to motivate in Arkansas or West Virginia.” So Harris is breaking the big news that Dean’s opponents say they don’t like Dean’s chances of getting elected. Thanks, John.

Beyond that, even on its own terms, the “base-versus-swing-voter” analysis is so simplistic that it’s virtually useless as a way of looking at the race. As a number of commentators have pointed out, including Paul Krugman in today’s New York Times, casting Dean as a classic liberal ignores his moderate record as Governor of Vermont, his budget-balancing zeal, and his support for gun rights, among other positions. In many ways, Dick Gephardt is much closer to being a classic liberal than is Dean. Just as important, the “radical” tag misses a key part of Dean’s appeal: his “straight-talking” quality, which has nothing to do with whether he’s a liberal or a centrist – remember John McCain, who built a powerful movement in 2000 as a straight-talking . . . moderate. With four days before the Iowa caucuses, one might hope that The Washington Post could offer us something a little more newsworthy than a repeat of what analysts have been reassuring each other about since it was 95 degrees and humid in Washington D.C.

–Zachary Roth

Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.