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New Year/New Election

Without getting caught up in all the twists and turns of the Iowa and New Hampshire tracking polls, I have to say, the last two weeks have been a perfect illustration of my point that a presidential race before New Year's Day, and the race after New Year's Day are two completely different things. And the reason that reporters and bloggers and campaign staffs can miss that is simply that they've all been paying close attention for at least a year now, and so they forget that most people haven't The vast majority of people who are going to vote in the primaries and caucuses, not to mention the general election, are only just now beginning to pay attention.

It's amazing how sure political pundits seem of their predictions, and then how much they think it's news when their predictions -- which are almost always a straight line from the present -- turn out not to be true. "Crystal Ball Gets Cloudy" is the headline on today's Times story -- but doesn't that just mean that the crystal ball was cloudy all along? That's like saying, "I used to know exactly what was going to happen in 2004, but now I don't." In fact, you never did.

I think Jeff Jarvis's analysis, which is basically that the voters coming into the game now are not as motivated by hatred of Bush, but want a more substantive message, is basically right. (Which is not to say they don't hate Bush or that the Democrat should hold back on criticizing Bush -- it's just that their feelings about Bush are not strong enough by themselves to motivate them out of their La-z-boys the year before the election.)

I think there's a little more to Dean's apparent decline than just that. Dean set himself a huge challenge, which I don't think he and Joe Trippi really understood. Having a candidacy based on intense enthusiasm requires keeping that enthusiasm going, against all other temptations and distractions, for a long time, from last summer through at least January 27. That was always going to be hard to do, and as enthusiasm wanes, the little tactics like "bringing out the bat" lose their effectiveness. This was a bubble, in the classic sense. It was like one of those NASDAQ companies in the late 1990s whose stock price was driven by its stock price. . As long as you could keep it going, and bring in new buyers for the stock, it works, but the minute the new buyers fall away, it evaporates very quickly. It's not just that Dean was subject to a lot of attacks, but that he actually didn't have enough substance -- both policy and larger vision of the country's future -- to his candidacy. He was a pre-New Year's candidate. And yet, he had an enormous impact on the race, and on how Democrats think about the importance of firing up the base as well as marginal voters, which will be mostly for the good. (Yes, I'm using the past tense advisedly. I don't think Dean will be the nominee.)

The most salutary thing about the recent polls is the rise, at last, of John Edwards. It was always a mystery why Edwards didn't seem to be catching on. He's an appealing person, good biography, he speaks English, his economic policy and his way of talking about taxes has been the smartest and most creative in the race, and he has certainly stood up to Bush. Edwards is well-organized. For example, in New York, only he and Dean have pulled off the difficult task of fielding full delegate slates in all jurisdictions, which is probably also a tribute to his state co-chair, Bill DeBlasio, who happens to be my city councilman but also ran Senator Clinton's campaign in 2000. And if he can generate the enthusiasm to be the nominee, there's no doubt he could pick off a few key states, especially Florida, from Bush. I supported Edwards early, but got sucked into the early prediction game that he was going nowhere and moved to Clark.

What I particularly admire now about Edwards is how he didn't flinch in the face of the Dean bubble and his own struggle. He just kept at it, and stuck to his message, which is really about economic opportunity for those left behind, while Kerry became obsessed with attacking Dean, and other candidates tried to emulate him. I still think Clark's clarity of vision, on both economic and foreign policy, is enormously powerful. But the recent dust-up over his plainly ambivalent position on the Iraq war, while almost totally contrived by the White House, nonetheless makes me wish that Clark had also not flinched. Trying to establish himself as just as firmly anti-war as Dean -- when in fact, his perfectly reasonable position was not as unsubtle as Dean's -- he got himself a little twisted up, and not just on the first day. As Josh Marshall has written, "the slices of the electorate that will decide this election will, I think, share [Clark's} ambivalence" about the war. I agree, and I certainly share it.

Clark's run a superb campaign, especially for having never done anything like it before. But it has been a little spooked by Dean and by the preposterous idea among lefties that he's "really a Republican," or, to recycle a quote I've used before, "another Arianna," which has led him to say things he doesn't quite mean about Iraq or about abortion rights. I don't think it's really hurt him yet, especially if he can consolidate his gains in New Hampshire and do as well with independents as I expect. Like Edwards, he'll make a great general election candidate and a fine president.

Kerry's reemergence I don't really get at all. I don't think he has a message, he's never seemed to have any driving passion, and I think he's showed sides of his character -- such as gratuitously insulting fired former staffers who had been devoting 18-hour days to his ambition -- that are enormously unappealing. But others obviously see him in other ways.

I think we're heading into a period where it will become apparent that there are a number of strong and appealing Democratic candidates in the race -- it's a far stronger field than in 1988 or even 1992 -- and their competition will, up to a point, be to the benefit of the eventual nominee.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 19, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

Your anybody-but-Dean hopes seem to have to have clouded your analysis. Dean has the most money, the best organization, and a crowd of supporters who will gladly send him millions more for the fights in the later primary states, if necessary. Yes, Clark and Edwards still have an outside chance, but it's a real reach to say that Dean's slight decline in the Iowa polls mean he's no longer the clear frontrunner.

Posted by: Don Pedro | Jan 19, 2004 8:43:54 AM

I think a partial explanation about the now four way Iowa race is less a function of Dean-fade--in fact I see no evidence that Dean's base has changed much pre or post January 1. Rather the number of undecided voters, which was never small, has likely been swayed by the exponential increase of Dean bashing the last several weeks.

Posted by: Leonard Benardo | Jan 19, 2004 10:09:51 AM

I'd like to respectfully disagree about Edwards. While his populist rhetoric might be catching on, his economic proposals seem to be mostly small-scale Clinton-style pilot programs that aren't going to have much effect on the economy.

A $5,000 tax credit for a down payment on a first home, when the median national house price is $120,000?

Cutting capital gains taxes, when most owners of stock are relatively wealthy?

Cutting corporate welfare and "closing tax loopholes?" Gee, nobody ever made that promise before.

And I'm sorry, but his job creation proposals seem like a lot more rhetoric than substance.

Anyway, I don't see where he's a whole lot better than Dean or any of the others on economic policy.

Posted by: Tom Geraghty | Jan 19, 2004 1:02:35 PM

There are much better articles today --particularly in the Wall Street Journal--than the usual Adam Nagourney's view of the conventional wisdom.

I think one point I read somewhere, that Kerry and Edwards ads appealed much more than Dean and Geps was probably important. As much as I hate to admit media counts for a lot once the undecideds tune in.

I think that and a saturation with Dean and Gep's escalation of words created the current dynamic.

I wouldn't read too much into the Iowa stuff see Don Pedro.

But I agree...while I support Dean...some of the candidates would make good candidates...I'd love to see the winner tonight pre-empt Bush's State of the Union and point out what a joke it will be.


Posted by: lerxst | Jan 19, 2004 1:33:48 PM

I'm suprised at your easy dissing of Kerry - while I respect your views, I heartily disagree. I have spent way too much time considering each candidate over the last few months - and after wanting to jump on the Dean bandwagon, and toying with the Clark candidacy ... I am strongly convinced Kerry - A. has the best chance to beat bush next fall in that he has an appeal to voters in the middle specifically suburban moms. and B. Will make the best president (having seen him here in Minneapolis, I was very impressed with his presence, energy and command of the issues).

As much as I'd like to see a President Dean or President Edwards (or Kucinich for that matter), I really don't think any of them can beat Bush come Novemeber - while Kerry stands a fair chance in my opinion. Which is the only issue that matters to this Minnesota voter.

Looks like Marshall is down with Kerry as well - at least he was 4 years ago:

http://archive.salon.com/politics/feature/2000/07/20/kerry/print.html

I'd say give him another look.

Posted by: sp k | Jan 19, 2004 3:13:59 PM

Refresh my memory. Why is it preposterous for "lefties" to say that Clark is a really a Republican? Is it preposterous by some tactical standard, or preposterous by some sort of historical standard?

Posted by: R Wells | Jan 19, 2004 10:55:01 PM

When Reagan left the Democrats, Republicans embraced him.

Clark, never a registered Repub as far as I know, is now a Democrat, and has taken up a slate of very worthy Democratic policies. He has an admirable personal story. He has no record of mass deception. He has a remarkable personality and presence on television.

It's ludicrous to me that "lefties" don't like him because of abstract ideas of what it means to be a member of a "party." They think he might get into office and say "Fooled Yah! Now it's supply-side and screw the poor time!!" I mean, really.

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Jan 19, 2004 11:10:03 PM

Well, I have said that it was a tactical mistake for Dean to attack Clark on this basis in New Hampshire, given the potential for independents to make up almost half of the Dem primary electorate. But what I meant here was just that it's not true. He's a guy who voted for some Republicans but mostly Democrats, and said some optimistic things about the Bush administration, but fundamentally clearly has deep-seated Democratic values, and the things he says off the cuff, well before he was in the race, about tax fairness, affirmative action, and education are clear, heartfelt, eloquent, and unequivocal. He may not be the perfect candidate for every Democrat, but he's not a Republican.

Posted by: Mark Schmitt | Jan 19, 2004 11:58:24 PM

Fair enough, but I still think it's a perfectly fair question to ask, of Clark, if one is wondering, from the left, about the direction of the Democratic party--especially since his past affiliations are not clear, and to add to the mix, because of his military background. Now the latter is no reason to rule him out, anymore than its should necessarily rule him in (even if there is a war on); but he should be asked about how his experience in an hierarchical, male dominated, command and control institution prepared him to lead an system that is, according to democratic ideals anyway, something rather different. Of course military leaders have long become civilian leaders, but not for awhile and times have changed. (There was a story in the Times, regarding Clark's efforts to court women. He said something like this when assessing one aspect of the task: "most women think that the military is a male dominated, hierarchical institution." The Times pretty much let it go at that, and we didn't get to see if or how he explained what the military was if it wasn't that). Per Crab Nebula, did not Bill Clinton admit to Bob Woodward after getting elected that "we're all Eisenhower Republicans here. . . We stand for lower deficits, free trade and the bond market. Isn't that great?" He then conceded that by helping the bond market, "we hurt the people that voted us in." Didn't he then preside over continuing drops in the government spending relative to GDP (much of which was in social spending), a widening gap between the rich and the poor, the creation (with Greenspan's help) of a financial bubble whose bursting led to recession, the forfeiture of deficit spending as a progressive fiscal weapon, not the mention the rampant, and often illegal (and thanks to Kate Bronfenbrenner's work, well documented) resistance on the part of capital to labor's efforts to organize? Not supply-side away, but right of center for sure. The easy answer, of course, is better another Clinton (with some military experience, given it's war time) than four more years of Bush. Probably so; But on the left, at least as I understand that political place, there is the hope that Bush could be defeated, while moving the Democratic party leftward, if only in small steps. The Clinton years now have a warm glow, but in large part they have the right wing thuggery of the Bush administration to thank for that.

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