Monday, May 12, 2008

Caucus Survivor: Out-spin, Out-pander

Running for president is a soul-killing job. Just imagine racing around the country for two years, endlessly repeating the same catch phrases and self-congratulatory arguments until you feel like a well-coiffed robot. So it was no surprise that by the eve of the Iowa caucuses in 2004, Howard Dean looked a bit squeezed out on the trail.

Nevertheless, the candidate pulled out the stops by spending Sunday morning with President Carter in Georgia, then flew back to caucus-land for a rare appearance with his wife, the elusive Doctor Judy. Only Fox TV covered her live, perhaps another sign that the Republicans actually preferred to run against Dean. Most pundits thought it proved he was desperate. My Big Fat Media Caucus was turning into an unpredictable reality show, Caucus Survivor.

Dean had endured a withering assault for months, and not just from other candidates. In addition to a barrage of negative campaign ads directed against the frontrunner, a majority of nightly network newscast evaluations of Dean were negative, while three-quarters of the coverage given to the other candidates was favorable, according to research conducted by the Center for Media and Public Affairs. In 2003, only 49 percent of all on-air evaluations of former Vermont governor were positive, while the rest of the democratic field collectively received 78 percent favorable.

By January 19, the candidates were ready to say and do anything to survive. A few hours before the caucuses, John Kerry wondered aloud whether John Edwards was “out of diapers” when he (Kerry) came back from Vietnam. He had to apologize, since Edwards was 16 at the time. In frigid weather, steelworkers were showing their painted chests for Dick Gephardt. Wesley Clark, not in the caucus but gaining ground nationally at the time, was hugging George McGovern in New Hampshire. Edwards and Dennis Kucinich meanwhile struck a deal to pool delegates (as if caucus-goers were a tradable commodity). The candidate with the best early showing in a caucus supposedly would get the other’s support to meet the 15 percent viability threshold for actual delegates. There’s democracy in action.

In a weird counterpoint, the Bush administration was simultaneously pushing for caucuses in Iraq. As the US tried to get the UN back into the game, thousands of angry Shiites were taking to the streets. Their demand was free elections, but their leaders admitted that the goal was an Islamic state. Whoops. Time to caucus.

The fear was that a public vote, being demanded by the Shiite majority, would lead to a less-than-friendly government or even a jihad. The subtext was that caucuses make it easier to manipulate the outcome than letting just anyone vote. Oddly enough, Hillary Clinton made a related argument when she started losing in caucus states this year. They’re undemocratic, she claimed, drawing only activists and people with the time to sit through a long process.

In 2004, CNN’s punditocracy was comfortable enough to forecast the outcome in Iowa hours before anyone voted. On Crossfire, Democratic insiders Paul Begala and James Carville, as well as conservative warhorse Robert Novak, predicted that Kerry’s late surge would overwhelm Dean. Edwards was given bronze, but Gephardt was consigned to oblivion. Dean himself sounded over-confident on camera, but there was uncertainty among the so-called Deaniacs. Volunteers in at least three cities were handing out flyers that charged Kerry wasn’t electable, his wife was too rich, and Ralph Nader wouldn’t step aside if he was the nominee. It sounded more immature than desperate.

Days earlier, Dean Campaign Director Joe Trippi had claimed to have 40,000 definite supporters lined up to attend caucuses, virtually guaranteeing first place. (He turned out to be off by half.) Over the weekend, Dean volunteers flooded the state, buzzing around in orange hats. We were about to find out whether “Generation Dean” was for real – or just irritating. For the candidate, it was the first reality check for a dream that dated back more than four years. Dean had briefly considered running in 2000, but “stepped aside” for Al Gore. He also consulted Gore before announcing.

Waiting for the numbers, Tom Brokaw noted that politics today is about cultural values, and that Dean’s message had become confused – an outsider with more key endorsements than anyone else, an angry guy whose own wife didn’t want much to do with his campaign. In short, his uncertain image had undermined his message and, more important, his perceived electability. According to a focus group led by Frank Luntz, Dean’s support had tanked, largely because people found him too testy, even mean – partially based on a last minute shouting match with a critic that made Iowa TV news. Kerry and Edwards were staging an upset.

Dean had squandered his lead, and too many questions were being raised about his electability, key factors favoring Kerry and Edwards. Early opposition to the Iraq didn’t turn out to be a strong enough argument, and both anti-war and young Iowans found Kerry as attractive as the Vermont governor. Nevertheless, becoming the frontrunner had allowed Dean to launch and fund a national campaign. Thus, losing in Iowa didn’t necessarily doom his campaign. But it did allow the media to question his claims to be leading a broad-based movement, and set the stage for Kerry to beat him in New Hampshire. Even millions in TV ads wouldn’t be enough to overcome another month like the last one.

And then, when he could have just shut up, Howard Dean went on national TV to thank his supporters and unexpectedly turned into a cartoon character, Deaniac, a snarling Hulk who rasped out his determination to beat rivals, shouting out their home states with a frightening sneer. Columnist Howard Fineman was generous when he called it “a little nutty.” CNN’s senior analyst Bill Schneider concluded that “people looked at Howard Dean, and they didn’t see a President.”

Mike Barnacle was more blunt: “That guy’s not going to the White House.”

Next: Death Match Logic

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