Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Death Match Logic: Make No Assumptions

If you listened to most political analysts in 2004, that Presidential Death Match was supposed to be a referendum on how the incumbent had handled Iraq and the economy. And since both looked shaky for much of the year, some predicted Bush II might end up on the “one-term” bench with his dad. But things change, especially when the stakes are so high, and drawing conclusions about the dynamics of an election months in advance can be dangerous.

Karl Rove and the religious Right wanted the 2004 race to be about values – you know, patriotism, optimism, standing up for heterosexual marriage. Actually, they meant that people should simply accept authority (“Father knows best,” after all!), ignore uncomfortable facts, and conform to their evangelically-infused 1950s vision. But the election ended up being about many things – security, deception, gay marriage, decency, and the all-important “likeability.”

Howard Dean’s incandescent sprint toward the White House turned out to be a warning: Be prepared for the unexpected. By winning the so-called “invisible primary” – the fundraising and organization-building race before any votes were cast – he looked like a viable “frontrunner.” But his support turned out to be demographically thin and easy to undermine. He ended up going from “hot” to “not” in less than a month.

Like the outbursts of Barack Obama’s former minister Jeremiah Wright, Dean’s brief rant after the Iowa caucuses – which became infamous as the “I have a scream” speech – was the hottest clip on TV and the Internet for weeks, the focus of endless jokes and analysis. In five days, the “scream heard round the world” was played almost 700 times on US TV networks. As Dean’s poll numbers dropped, critics immediately concluded that he simply didn’t have the “temperament” to be President. The emphasis shifted from which candidate had the most compelling message to which would be more “electable.” Dean was about to be winnowed out.

Struggling mightily to turn a disaster into an opportunity, the embattled candidate spent the next days blanketing the networks with interviews, appearing with his wife, joking about his performance on late night TV, even distributing video tapes of a warm and fuzzy interview with Diane Sawyer to more than 100,000 New Hampshire residents. Oddly enough, it began to work. Some people concluded that the criticisms of Dean were exaggerated. But Kerry meanwhile seized his opening to step above the fray, stressing his “gravitas” and showcasing his manly skills by playing Hockey and piloting a helicopter. Like a contender on the original Survivor reality show, he was trying to establish his value to the tribe.

The following Tuesday, when New Hampshire primary votes were tallied, the strategy paid off. Kerry repeated his Iowa performance, pulling in 39 percent. But Dean made a partial comeback with a convincing second place finish. His speech that night was more sedate, yet still defiant. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so easy to throw him off the island, at least for a few weeks.

The real casualties, for the moment, turned out to be Wesley Clark, who skipped Iowa to spend weeks alone in New Hampshire – only to come in a weak third, and Joe Lieberman, stuck in fifth with less than 10 percent after virtually living in the state for a month and bragging about his “Joe-mentum.” Neither immediately gave up, but both were now on the critical list. That’s how it goes on Caucus Survivor.

Some said Dean was assassinated by a hostile media. It’s partly true. But they couldn’t have done it if he hadn’t supplied the bullets. Dean’s candidacy was a promising insurgency, but never more than a work in progress. And the notion that it changed the Democratic Party took too much for granted. Another assumption was that Ralph Nader’s presence in the race would broaden the discussion. But as it turned out, he didn’t get to participate in major debates or make it onto the ballot in many states.

Many people also assumed that Bush was a fool. His intellectual laziness seemed well-established, yet he certainly was smart enough to know whom he represented. He was part of a political dynasty, and his rule represented a restoration for his family and its long-term allies in the energy section, defense industry, Pentagon, CIA, and investor class. He also became the de facto leader of the Christian Right, projecting its “good” versus “evil” view of the world. An opportunist? Certainly. But no fool.

Finally, too many people uncritically accepted the platitude that everything had changed after 9/11. Not quite. Some things were proceeding as usual, notably the manipulation of public opinion and the election process.

Coming Soon: Momentum – the Movie

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