The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Friday, February 06, 2004

Today Slate features an editorial by Michael Kinsley, called "The Pragmatists' Primary: Desperately seeking electability." I suppose it is typical Kinsley in that it is glib and amusing, but fundamentally flawed.

Democrats are cute when they're being pragmatic. They furrow their brows and try to think like Republicans. Or as they imagine Republicans must think. They turn off their hearts and listen for signals from their brains. No swooning is allowed this presidential primary season. "I only care about one thing," they all say. "Which of these guys can beat Bush?" Secretly, they believe none of them can, which makes the amateur pragmatism especially poignant.

Nevertheless, Democrats persevere. They ricochet from candidate to candidate, hoping to smell a winner. In effect, they give their proxy to the other party. "If I was a Republican," they ask themselves, "which of these Democratic candidates would I be most likely to vote for?" And by the time this is all over, most of the serious contenders will have been crowned the practical choice for at least a moment. First it was Lieberman the Centrist. "I'm actually for Dennis Kucinich," a Democrat might say, "because I like his position on nationalizing all the churches. But I'm supporting Joe Lieberman. His views on nearly everything are repellent to me, and I think that's a good sign."

That was pretty funny, especially the part about Kucinich nationalizing churches. But when I got done chuckling I started to wonder: If this really is the thought process of the Democratic primary voter, then why didn't Lieberman do better than "third place in the race for third place?"

Then the General entered the race. And I don't mean General Anesthesia.

Has Michael Kinsley been kidnapped by Maureen Dowd?

A man in uniform, Democrats thought. People like that sort of thing, don't they? And yet he's a Democrat. Or at least he plays one on TV. True, on most issues he has either no known position or two contradictory positions. But he says he can requisition those missing parts. And he's a General. Talk about pragmatic! But when the General traded in his uniform for a fuzzy sweater, he suddenly looked less General-like than Al Sharpton.

I guess everyone is entitled to an opinion but ... if you showed the Democratic candidates to a group of people who don't follow politics, and told them to pick out the retired general, don't you think they would focus on the guy with the short hair and the severe look and no surplus fat? Oh, and who doesn't blink? Would they really choose Sharpton more often than Clark?

Some Democrats cheated and looked into their hearts, where they found Howard Dean. But he was so appealing that he scared them. This is no moment to vote for a guy just because he inspires you, they thought. If he inspires me, there must be something wrong with him. So, Democrats looked around and rediscovered John Kerry. He'd been there all along, inspiring almost no one. You're not going to find John Kerry inspiring unless you're married to him or he literally saved your life.

What happened to "trying to be Republicans"? Do Democrats think that Republicans don't want to be inspired? I think Kinsley subconsciously realized that his premise was silly and tried to move away from it in as few paragraphs as possible.

Patronizing beliefs about Democrats are not limited to Mr. Kinsley. Non-Democrats' viewed Dean's nomination as inevitable because they lacked imagination about how Democrats think. I know that when I heard about Dean I thought "Oh, the anti-war candidate. Well those Democrats are all pinkos, so they'll eat that stuff up." Even after it became clear that Dean could capture only 10-20% of Democratic votes, the patronizing continued. A few weeks back radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt did some ghostwriting for Dean's New Hampshire debate appearance:

"On Tuesday night I spent 15 seconds trying to fire up my volunteers who had a disappointing night Tuesday --congratulations John and John, but overconfidence is a dangerous thing, as I've learned-- I spent 15 seconds pointing at signs and recognizing people from faraway states who'd driven thousands of miles in some cases to stand on corners in sub-zero temps, and I fire them up and try to show that I am not down for the count because they're not down for the count, and television, radio, Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh and your network, Brit, try to turn me into a deranged psycho. Fred Barnes called me cracked, for goodness sake. I've been a medical doctor treating crisis cases in emergency rooms for twenty years, and a governor making life and death decisions for ten years, and the American media, threatened by my message that big corporate interests are out of control--and there is no bigger corporate interest than Fox-- decides to marginalize me using a quarter minute of tape."

"Now this process of Karl Rove orchestrated, media-led destruction of the loyal opposition has been going on for months now, but it is going to end here in New Hampshire. The voters of New Hampshire have been around the block a few times, and they know what's going on, and crucially, they know what's at stake. If the media knocks me off, then it will be John Kerry's turn and we will hear endlessly about his protests of the Vietnam War and his quote"French tastes" close quotes, but we won't hear about John's genuine and moving heroism in the face of brutal fire. We'll hear about John Edwards being a plaintiff's attorney fueled by plaintiff's attorneys all over the country as though serving the severely injured is a bad thing, We'll hear about General Clark's anonymous enemies in the Pentagon and we'll overlook his leadership in halting genocide. All of this and more, because all of us threaten the money, Brit, we all threaten the money. This president has made it very lucrative to be Republican, Brit, and those of us who get wind in our sails come under fire, and its not fair."

Hewitt, a conservative, relies on a caricature for insight as to how Democrats think. "They hate Fox News, and they hate Karl Rove, so if Dean fulminates against Fox and Rove he'll be their hero." But Democrats are people, not automatons who open their mouths and yell whenever Rove's name is mentioned. Let's turn this around: Do Republicans like nasty jokes at Hillary Clinton's expense. Yes. Would Republicans like a presidential contender to make a nasty joke about Hillary during the 2008 New Hampshire primary debate? No, of course not. They would find it rude and inappropriate, and would fear that the person who made the joke would be unpopular and unelectable.

The simplest explanation, while hard for onlookers such as Kinsley and Hewitt to accept, is best: John Kerry is the leading Democratic contender because more Democrats like him than any other candidate.



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