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Dean's Death Spiral

It's sad to say, but people who are interested in politics tend to be unduly distracted by the more gruesome car crashes along the political highway. Seeing a Trent Lott or a John Rowland brought down is hugely satisfying, but Dean's astonishingly rapid collapse has a certain sick fascination to it as well.

I can look at this both ways. On the one hand, it was an arrogant, cocky campaign that thought it had accomplished something when it really hadn't, that thought they had transcended some of the normal rules of politics. (See my long post, early in the history of this blog, on Saviors and Counters for my take on his approach to politics vs. the standard constituency-based approach.) And, of course, I had the most negative first reaction to Trippi. I thought he was delusional and almost offensive in his belief that the other candidates should just bow down in awe of Dean's money and his internet base, and get out before a single vote his cast or risk a "donnybrook."

I loved Josh Marshall's comment after Iowa that the way Dean had taken on the Democratic Party establishment was by luring them all in and then driving them off a cliff.

On the other hand, there's a lot to appreciate about what Trippi built for Dean. And bringing in Roy Neel to run this campaign makes about as much sense as hiring Billy Tauzin to run Common Cause! I think Simon Rosenberg got it just about right on the New Democrat Network blog:

What Dean and its Trippi era have done is to make the Party of the middle class more authentically the champion of the middle class by fundamentally altering how we finance and imagine our politics. This campaign is about them. No winks, no nods. We now know that we can only win this race with not just their votes but with their active participation in our politics again.

But there are two small things I want to say:

1. Tolstoy would not have made a good political pundit: Unhappy campaigns are very much alike, or at least they look alike. Campaigns in their down cycles all tend to look absolutely disastrous. Kerry's campaign looked like one of the biggest train wrecks in political history back in November. It can be hard to tell the difference between one where the fundamentals are strong but it just needs a fresh face, and a campaign that's doomed. In this case, though, it's the wrong time to fall apart. A campaign that even in its more modest and strategic phase (that is, before it got carried away with itself last spring or summer) had to win New Hampshire HAS TO win New Hampshire. After that it's just a painful death spiral, a frantic running from state to state looking for a win: Washington, Michigan, no, let's try Arizona... I've seen it, it's ugly and the only saving grace is it's over quickly.

2. Political campaigns are like living in New York. What do I mean by that? People always say that you have to be rich to live in New York. But I remember noticing when I lived here in the late 1980s that I knew plenty of people who made a lot of money -- investment bankers -- and also plenty of people who made even less than I did, like people who worked in the mail rooms at publishing companies. And yet they all managed to create a decent life for themselves in New York (albeit as young singles), and what they had in common was that they had no money left at the end of the week. You can be rich or poor in New York, but it just takes whatever you've got either way. And politics is like that too, which is why it's not totally surprising that Dean seems to have spent most of his $40 million. You can be Kucinich or you can be Dean -- either way, your money will get spent. Still, that's a lot of loot to go through so quickly. I wonder how much of it was spent on ads (everyone assumes that TV ads are the main cost in politics, but they're generally about a third, and things like getting the People-Powered gang to Iowa and moving them around and keeping them all happy and organized can be insanely expensive) and just how bad the ads really were.

Now it's time to stop staring at the wreck and get back on the road.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 28, 2004 | Permalink


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