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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Take Two Dean Articles and Call Me in the Morning

The good doctor is on trial today in the pages of The New Republic.  Can feisty Ho-Ho (if nominated) actually beat George W. Bush and become President of these United States?  Yes, he can! says Jonathan Cohn.  Don’t be ridiculous, says Jonathan Chait

DR urges you to read both of them and then pick your Jonathan.  Both are fine articles.  Cohn’s is possibly the best defense of Dean’s electability I’ve seen.  Chait’s, if a bit over-the-top at times, raises so many good questions about Dean’s electoral viability that honest Dean supporters will be forced to slow down for a minute and ask themselves: gee, could this guy really, really beat Bush? 
DR doesn’t entirely agree with either article, but he is inclined to think Cohn is more wrong than right and Chait is more right than wrong. 
Cohn’s case is that Dean’s centrism is real and misunderstood and that his appeal to liberals is based mostly on the fact that “he’s as angry as they are” and tells it like it is about Bush and the sins of his administration.  Cohn further argues that Dean’s blunt-speaking persona will be just the ticket with voters, including swing voters, who are looking for someone who speaks like a human being and tells you what they really think in clear, short sentences.  That authenticity, Cohn argues, will be the key to reaching the political center, even on contentious issues like the Iraq war (where, he reminds us, Dean’s consistent stance against the war looks less far-out with every day that goes by).
Well, maybe.  As Cohn himself cogently puts it:

[V]oters will quite properly demand that presidential candidates demonstrate their ability to protect national security. That’s a difficult challenge for any governor lacking foreign policy or personal military experience. Make that governor a New Englander, load him up with a few cultural positions (such as pro-civil unions) that some voters interpret as “soft,” then have him oppose a war that was widely popular at the time, and what you have–it would seem–is a recipe for disaster. 

I’m not sure Cohn ever really extricates Dean from these problems in his article.  And Chait’s article sticks this knife in and twists it.  The article, ominously (biblically?) subtitled “Howard Dean and the Tempting of the Democrats”, systematically marches through all the ways (like the ones Cohn mentions and then some) in which Dean can easily be portrayed as out-of-step and too liberal for centrist general election voters.  As Chait points out, Dean’s heterodoxy on issues like guns and the death penalty is unlikely to help him that much in the general because voters do not carefully examine each candidate’s individual positions.  Instead, they go for a broad impression of the man, which Rove and Co. will be happy to supply based on the abundant raw material that a Dean candidacy will supply. 
There are some problems with Chait’s article.  He spends too much time upbraiding Dean for being unfair to his fellow Democrats (quit lying about their records!)  And he never really deals with the energy and mobilization issue, which is surely a strong point of the Dean candidacy.  Any Democratic candidate will need energy and mobilization in abundance to be successful and Chait, shall we say, doesn’t really give the devil his due on this one.
No matter.  It’s a good article and so is Cohn’s.  Read ‘em both and you’ll be up to speed as the Great Dean Debate continues.