Three days ago, Sen. John Kerry’s frontrunner-then-nobody-then-frontrunner campaign for the presidency “upset” the powerful lead that former Vermont governor Howard Dean had built up in the race for the Democratic candidacy in 2004. Pundits were startled, and the centrist DLC breathed a sigh of relief. Buried somewhere within this larger story was the surprise candidacy of boyish John Edwards.
And then, of course, there were the candidates’ post-caucus speeches. While everyone has been spewing snark about Dean’s James Brown imitation, even setting his “mad rantings” to outdated mid-to-late-1990s dance beats, few people have been commenting on Kerry’s oh-so-tepid, and oh-so-centrist, victory speech. As far as I can tell, there were no illicit MP3s circulating that featured Kerry droning on about special interests over a score by Philip Glass.
With that in mind, it might be good to gain a sense of perspective here, a few days after the fact.
Today, before New Hampshire’s primary next week, Kerry is “up” in the state’s polls, which can realistically be attributed to both his home state’s geographic proximity and, more significantly, to the jokes and ridicule leveled against Dean, his closest competitor in that state up to this point, both in terms of polling and geography.
Is this really a good thing for Democrats of any stripe? Take another look at the candidates’ Monday-night speeches. Reconsider how passionless Kerry appeared onstage, on this, what should have been the most inspiring night of his decades-long political career. It was, instead, like watching Gore sighing in the October 2000 debates. Dead. Lifeless. Unwatchable.
Contrast Kerry’s discussion with Charlie Rose, I mean, his victory speech, with Dean’s energy and enthusiasm just a few minutes prior:
“Not only are we going to New Hampshire … we’re going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico,” Dean said with his voice rising. “We’re going to California and Texas and New York. We’re going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan. Then we’re going to Washington D.C. to take back the White House.”
Then, of course, to the delight of humorists everywhere, these lines culminated in the release of an animalistic “yowl” of sorts. But, dammit, was it not inspiring? Monday night was the first time in maybe two years or more of watching his candidacy that I genuinely felt a connection with the man’s drive to win. This, incidentally, comes from someone who has long been decrying the manner in which Dean has been presenting himself for the past few months. You know, “angry”, “off the cuff”, “red-faced”, and most damningly, “unelectable”.
But who’s kidding whom here? With Kerry at the helm of the Democratic Party in 2004, defeat is just as inevitable as it would be with Dean spearheading the race for the presidency. You’ll recall how close the 2000 election was, and that was back when incumbent Vice-President Al Gore was riding the wave of years of success and surplus, while Bush merely had the “uniter, not a divider” outsider approach going for him, however inaccurate either of those synopses may have been in reality. And Gore was supposedly a Southern Democrat, to boot.
In terms of policies alone, Kerry (and, for that matter, the plug-and-play John Edwards) is effectively Howard Dean in a different package. Centrist, politically moderate, but with far less attitude, and far less of a genuine public persona…in short, far less personality. Oh, and Kerry is a former military man.
But for all practical purposes, they’re both unelectable this fall. Four years ago, when a cowboy from Texas-by-way-of-Connecticut spent time on his campaign belligerently avoiding questions, sneering, calling reporters assholes, and fending off drinking-and-driving charges––but nonetheless managed to just about legitimately win the election––it might make sense to reconsider Dean’s “unelectable” “anger”. What is anger, if not passion? John “Monotone” Kerry comes off as more robotic than Gore did in 2000, if that’s possible. And perhaps that’s why he was polling so poorly for months on end, until an endless series of attacks on Dean’s anger and unelectability derailed a clean win in Iowa Monday night.
Seen through this light, Howard Dean can still win this thing, both next week, this spring, and in the fall. Just ask Karl Rove: media and personality decide elections in the 21st century, not experience, not policies, not ideology.
Put it this way: they’re effectively the same candidates, despite what the media or the DLC might have you believe, except one guy’s got an almost Clintonian passion for getting elected, while the other embarrassed himself––and the entire Democratic party––by awkwardly riding a souped-up motorcycle onto the set of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The guy even wore a helmet obscuring his face, which, while certainly promoting responsible vehicular safety policies, nonetheless obscured his face.
Joe Trippi, David Letterman, or John Stewart would never have allowed that shit.
And if worse comes to worse, and we’re going to lose this fall, let’s lose with principled pride, at least. Go Kucinich!