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A few random thoughts after New Hampshire

A snow day, and my wife's in South Carolina to cover the lead-up to that primary (weather sounds worse than New Hampshire), so playing in the snow slowed down the blogging today, or vice versa. But my thoughts from last night:

1. The result is obviously very different from what prediction/polling would have suggested two weeks ago, or even two days ago, when Dean seemed to be battling back. But it's almost exactly what one might have predicted a year ago: The two candidates from neighboring states on top, with Kerry winning, Dean second, Edwards with a decent following. You would probably have picked Lieberman to do a little better, but as I've said all along, he long ago, and by his own unnecessary choice, positioned himself in a niche where there are no Democratic primary voters, and certainly few in New Hampshire. (Even the independents are coming from a different place than the DLC/morality pitch. They tend to be more socially libertarian, and more fiscally conservative.) Of course, you would have assumed Gephardt would be in the race and Clark, probably not. Dean's second place, unfortunately, marks the end of his campaign, whereas in the year-ago scenario, it would have been a decent beginning, putting him solidly in the top two or three contenders. If Gephardt had won Iowa, Kerry New Hampshire, and Dean had come second in both, those would be the three viable contenders. The Iowa results, on the other hand, were not at all what one would have expected a year ago, so the fact that Kerry won both makes the NH result all the more significant for him.

2. I had a nightmare scenario -- and it was not one in which Howard Dean won the nomination. I was certainly worried about that scenario, and Dean's electability, but the far worse nightmare involved a prolonged contest between Dean and an anti-Dean -- Clark, Gephardt, Kerry or Edwards -- in which the anti-Dean ultimately prevailed, entirely on the energy of a stop-Dean movement, but Dean nonetheless came into Boston with a solid 35% of the delegates, all armed with a righteous conviction that they'd been robbed, perhaps by the Clintons, of something they had legitimately won. I've only been to one convention -- 1992 -- and the Jerry Brown delegates at that convention, who probably had less than 15% of the delegates (I can't find the exact number, but did find this evocative photo) managed to be an incredibly disruptive force. Even without the threat that he would run as an independent, I think that nightmare was one of the things that made some of the party establishment, such as it is, decide that it was wiser to join Dean than fight him. It now looks like that is a much less likely scenario. Even if Dean pulls back into some sort of contention and has a significant delegate presence, it will not be able to claim the "we wuz robbed" mantle. And in the very unlikely event that he comes back and wins the nomination, well, that would be a testament to political skill at the Bill Clinton level, and it would just have to be respected. But Dean has been humbled, appropriately, and his delegates will no longer be an angry, self-righteous force. And that's all to the good. As George W. Bush used to say, humility is a good thing.

Dean's grand mistake -- the mistake for which Joe Trippi deserved to get fired, despite his extraordinary genius -- was to believe that he had actually accomplished something before a single vote had been cast or a delegate committed. See my long-ago post, "The Trippy Scenario," for my first impression of this arrogance, and my mistake in thinking twice about it.

3. Clark: I'm disappointed and a little frustrated about what happened to General Clark. I like Clark not because he was an anti-Dean, but because I loved the way he talked about domestic issues. It's exactly what I've been looking for in a candidate: Clear statements of meaningful principles, not the programmatic language of Senators, and a deep understanding of and respect for public institutions, such as the one in which he'd spent his career. And, needless to say, he also had a wonderful power in talking about foreign policy issues, and could actually tell the story of how we went awry over Iraq, rather than simply opposing the war. Similarly, on Meet the Press last Sunday, he was able to convey doubts about whether the administration had taken al Qaeda seriously in a narrative context: all they cared about was missile defense, and so they ignored people who told them terrorism was the bigger concern. The only way to get voters to consider the possibility that the President didn't do all he could to prevent a terrorist attack is to tell a story in which it makes sense, and Clark does that far better than I've seen Kerry do.

I'd been hoping and expecting that Clark would click with New Hampshire's independents. What I didn't understand was that before he could do that, he would have to establish his credentials as a Democrat and even his right to run in the primary, in a way that McCain never had to establish his credentials as a Republican. Spooked by Dean -- unduly, it turns out -- he had to oversimplify his position on the war, and every minute he spent shoring up his not-very-believable left-of-center cred was a minute spent not reaching out to New Hampshire independents. I sort of wonder what would have happened if Clark had answered questions about party affiliation by saying something like, "political parties have never been that important to me. I've got my beliefs and values, and that's what I'm going to talk about. I've met plenty of Republicans who share my values, but they're not represented in this administration. On the most fundamental issues, such as a fair tax system, I agree with most Democrats, but I want to lead a country that's less partisan, where we work together to solve problems," etc. How many Democrats would be upset by that? Who's loyalty today is really to a party? And it would certainly help reach independents.

Clark got very good at staying on message, so good that he didn't quite know when he should step off message long enough to deal with something. The Michael Moore issue, and whether he should appear with Moore after Moore called Bush a "deserter," was an infuriating piece of bullshit to be dealing with in the last few days of the campaign, and one of the most egregious examples of press misconduct. "Who is this guy?" is always the deadliest question in politics, and Michael Moore is such a sharp contrast to Clark that he forced that question to the forefront. If I were Clark, I would have gotten off message long enough to say, "Like a lot of young men at the time, George Bush apparently didn't want to go to Vietnam. He was very fortunate in that he was given another way to serve his country. It's up to George Bush to tell the American people whether or not he actually fulfilled the requirements of that alternative service. The question is to him, not to me." But maybe that would have been inflammatory.

But still, the very idea that the New York Times treats Clark as if he made some mistake because "Bush's actions do not meet the technical definition of desertion, which is punishable by death" is offensive. No, Bush is obviously not a "deserter," since by definition he would have been shot by a firing squad if he was! But it's his actions that should be in question here, not Clark's or Moore's. This is one of those issues where it helps to turn the table and put Clinton in the same spot. Does anyone ever demand that Bush renounce people like Jerry Falwell who put out tapes accusing Clinton of being responsible for the deaths of 184 people? I think it's fair to say that Clinton's actions did not meet the technical definition of mass murder.

It is interesting to note that we now have a president who's been accused, with some cause, of desertion, treason (the exposure of Valerie Plame), and of leading the nation to war on a false premise. That's the Trifecta of crimes against your own country, isn't it? OK, the desertion charge doesn't meet the technical definition, and the other two, while we know that they occurred, we still don't have all the details about exactly who said what to whom. Still, not a record on which I'd want to be running for reelection, in a just world.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 27, 2004 | Permalink


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Mark, you haven't dealt with Kerry. I want to hear your take on him. Way I see it, the fears of his personality may be overblown because of the very real improvement in relating to people.

I think he even may have a weird kind of grandfatherly appeal. And I don't think using "liberal" in a pejorative context will work like it did 15 years ago (e.g. Dukakis and countless other downballot campaigns)

I think Bush will try to run against Kerry in the same way he ran against Gore, drawing distinctions on character. (since Bush can't run on fogged issue positions, this is what he's still got in his bag, along with WOT) He'll try to paint him as slippery and without principles. I think Kerry's more authentic than Gore, which would at least partially blunt that strategy. But it will force Kerry to be extremely savvy with message (which Gore also was not).

Can the apparently improved 2004 Kerry do it? I think maybe, I'd like a long primary season to find out. What do you think?

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Jan 29, 2004 1:10:24 AM

I was upset by the General's lame "free speech" defense of MMoore. The more important question about Bush's military service is more recent - as Commander and Chief. If Bush had had the combat experience of either Kerry or Clark (or McCain or Dole) I am certain he would have been less cavalier about sending the troops into Iraq. But then Bush has no sense of history...no memory.

I gather that Clark lost points for not having a precise view on the point of conception. Gosh neither do I. If it had been me talking with Blitzer I would have responded with a hypothetical. Did George Bush "practice" abstinence when he was a wastrel? Did the Republican men who oppose choice practice abstinence when they were younger.

Redefine the terms of the debate.

Posted by: Wren | Jan 29, 2004 7:32:19 AM

Mark, this is perhaps a little anti-climatic but here is the Army's definition of deserter. You can click the link for a slightly longer extract, and the link to the Army document is there also:

What is a Deserter?

On the 31st day of AWOL, this status is officially changed to Dropped From Rolls (DFR), or desertion. This can be called the "administrative" definition of the term. From a legal standpoint, individuals are considered deserters when they have been convicted of the crime through a court martial. In reality, most desertion cases do not come to this. Instead, the overwhelming majority of soldiers who desert are released from the Army with less-than-honorable discharges. (For instance, in the Calendar Years 1997-2001, 94% of the approximately 12,000 soldiers who deserted were released from the Army.) In this paper and project, the focus in on deserters as defined administratively.

Part of Clark's mistake here, as I see it, is to not have anticipated the response of the press, and to not have been prepared with a specific Army document to back Moore's assertion. "It is irrelevant to me, but Michael was using the Army's administrative definition of deserter ... look it up for yourself" would have been a nice reply to Jennings, Russert, and the rest.

Posted by: poputonian | Jan 29, 2004 7:56:21 AM

As I recall, after John McCain lost South Carolina in 2000, he did attack Robertson and Falwell.

And his campaign died right there.

The truth is that the Robertson/Falwell "wing" is far closer to the center of the Republican ruling coalition than the constituent-less Moore is to the Democratic middle. Robertson and Falwell can't be attacked by Repbulicans (it's their base), Democrats (fearful of motivating them), or the media (much of which is owned by that wing, or too craven to face the counter attacks).

Moore, on the other hand, whatever you think of his views, if a perfect embodiment of the liberal caricature that Republicans have spent years painting for our benefit.

Posted by: Jon Moyer | Jan 29, 2004 8:02:51 AM

I guess it takes all kinds.

You said: "I like Clark not because he was an anti-Dean, but because I loved the way he talked about domestic issues. It's exactly what I've been looking for in a candidate: Clear statements of meaningful principles, not the programmatic language of Senators, and a deep understanding of and respect for public institutions, such as the one in which he'd spent his career."

I turned off to Clark precisely because he didn't seem to have an interest in domestic issues or more than a superficial understanding of them.

Posted by: V. J. Meagher | Jan 29, 2004 8:51:34 AM

1. The Moore/deserter episode was unfortunate and unfair to Clark, even if he botched his response. But the most salient fact seems to be that people see him as slightly... weird. He simply has terrible political skills, methinks. Might help explain the disdain for him in the military.

2. I am anti-Bush and you are right about his record. The problem is that he's also running on a record of killing and capturing a lot of evil people. Even in a just world, that's not worth nothing.

3. The Decemberists are a good band!

Posted by: Kid Dynomite | Jan 29, 2004 2:15:36 PM

I wish Clark had said:

"Having Michael Moore supporting me... a Four Star General... shows the width and breadth of the coalition we are putting together.
It's a coalition of liberals, centrists and conservatives sharing the common goal of bringing our country back.
Of course there will be differences of opinion on the fringes... and I welcome that.
But I will not entertain or allow Republicans and others to use divide and conquer tactics to distract us from our common mission."

Posted by: Mark Bowllan | Jan 29, 2004 2:16:06 PM

Hmm. Shrub couldn't have been a deserter, because ALL deserters are executed; Shrub wasn't executed, therefore he couldn't possibly have deserted. Right. Can't argue with that kind of logic.

Posted by: Javier Saviola | Jan 29, 2004 2:53:34 PM

Mark Bowlian,

Actually, Clark pretty much said what you recommended:

"Well, I think Michael Moore has the right to say whatever he feels about this.

I don't know whether this is supported by the facts or not. I've never looked at it. I've seen this charge bandied about a lot.

But to me it wasn't material. This election is going to be about the future, Peter. And what we have to do is pull this country together. And I am delighted to have the support of a man like Michael Moore, of a great American leader like Senator George McGovern, and of people from Texas like Charlie Stenholm and former Secretary of the Navy John Dalton.

We've got support from across the breadth of the Democratic Party, because I believe this party is united in wanting to change the leadership in Washington. We're going to run an election campaign that's about the future. We're going to hold the president accountable for what he did in office and failed to do, and we're going to compare who's got the best vision for America."

Posted by: digby | Jan 29, 2004 6:01:49 PM

What this comments page shows is that it's easier to be clever and precise sitting on your butt behind a screen than standing on your feet in front of an indifferent audience or hostile press. Maybe candidates should only offer interviews via Instant Messenger with multiple aides helping them sculpt the right response.

Posted by: Wren | Jan 30, 2004 7:13:07 AM

Actually, what it shows is that the So-Called Liberal Media will not only excuse stuff from a Republican that they wouldn't from a Democrat, they'll actually attack people for pointing to what the Republican did.

One of the predictions I've hear d over the last two years [1] is that what happened to Gore in 2000 will happen again to *whomever* is the Democratic nominee in '04.

The media will attack him mercilessly, repeating any GOP attack talking points, distorting what he said, and then presenting the distortions as truth. It won't be due to what the Democratic nominee did, it will be due to him being the Democratic nominee.

We've seen that with two years of oral servicing of Bush, and spinning Dean as the 'angry man', without pointing out why anger is justified. This culminated with pulling the mic-only audio feed of Dean's speech, converting a speech to a crowded, noisy room into just a scream.

We *will* see more - watch for it. If you're watching, you'll realize that they aren't random mistakes, but deliberate 'errors'.


[1] IIRC, Media Whores Online has made this point, as well as Krugman and Atrios. Probably a number of others.

Posted by: Barry | Jan 30, 2004 2:20:54 PM

Re: Clark running a "non-partisan" campaign in the primary, where you said: How many Democrats would be upset by that? Who's loyalty today is really to a party?

Lots of people. Particularly those who vote in primaries in bad weather.

Here in the Bay Area, there's a lot of identification with the Democratic Party; being a Republican makes it nearly impossible to have a political career in the more urbanized areas, and makes one unpopular socially. When Audie Bock, a nice white female liberal, got elected to the State Assembly as a Green, rather than working with her, the local Democrat establishment got their shit together and ran a candidate against her to punish her for being uppity.

Posted by: Anthony | Jan 30, 2004 9:01:14 PM

Clark is finally getting more comfortable in his skin - his candidacy only began in aug/sept, so it's amazing how much he's improved just since new hampshire. He's dropped some of the more canned lines in favor of straightforward answers, fleshed out his progressive policies, & emphasizes that he may be inexperienced in political campaigning but not in executive matters & diplomacy. He did great in the South Carolina Democratic Candidate Forum, 01/30/04, available on c-span.org , article http://www.blackamericaweb.com/site.aspx/bawnews/impact04/scforum ).

He's been virtually shut out by the press after iowa, but he should be getting some more coverage soon, and it'll be up to him to convince people he's a viable candidate.

He might not be able to recover from the early smears/spin on iraq war position(http://www.spinsanity.org/post.html?2004_01_11_archive.html), disagreements with Cohen/Shelton etc. But at least outside of the michael moore criticisms from the NH debate, the president's sketchy military history is finally being questioned in the press - http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4114162/

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