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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Kerry: The Threshhold Credibility Candidate!

DR would not anyone to think, based on yesterday’s post, that he considers Kerry to be some paragon of electability: the Democrats’ dream candidate. He’s got a list of Senate votes and public statements as long as your arm (longer!) that the Republicans will use to typecast him as a stale, out-of-step Massachusetts liberal. And his campaigning style is, shall we say, not exactly electrifying.
But DR does believe he’s an improvement over Howard Dean in the electability department. And, despite the problems mentioned above, he could also have an electability advantage over Edwards or Clark (though this is less clear).
To radically simplify, a presidential candidate needs to impress voters in three ways: as commander-in-chief and defender of national security; as steward of the economy and custodian of the domestic agenda; and through his campaigning and ability to connect with voters. In each of these areas, Kerry, in DR’s view, achieves threshhold credibility–that is, he’s good enough to make most voters give him a closer look without saying: “no way can I vote for that guy”.
Instead voters (at least our typical primary voter) might say: Kerry as commander-in-chief? He seems plausible. Kerry on domestic issues? Well, pretty good, he seems to know what he’s talking about. Kerry as campaiger? Not exciting, sure, but at least he’s disciplined and doesn’t say a lot of goofy stuff.
There you have it. Threshhold credibility! Contrast that with Dean, who seems implausible to many as commander-in-chief and, as a campaigner, has shown an inability to keep a lid on it when he really needs to. Or compare with Clark, who seems very plausible indeed as commander-in-chief, but seems painfully thin in the domestic area and has shown himself not-quite-ready-for-prime-time on the campaign trail. Or with Edwards, who is a great campaigner, with a pretty good to excellent domestic agenda, but who falls short in the commander-in-chief department.
Looked at this way, it seems logical that Kerry, with his threshhold credibility in all three areas, would be the guy Democratic primary voters would turn to as they move from protest to who-can-beat-Bush politics.
It seems possible–even likely–that Kerry will be able to parlay this threshhold credibility advantage into enough support to get the Democratic nomination. But will that be enough for him to win the general election? Almost certainly not. Credibility in these departments merely means voters will give him a close look. He’ll still have to close the sale and there are reasons to worry that Kerry has not yet found the themes and signature programs that will enable him to do so. Certainly his revival of warmed-over Gore-style populism does not augur well. That populism, despite its many virtues, is unlikely to be adequate to the task of defeating George Bush in a post-9/11 environment. Much, much more will be needed.
But that’s a subject for another post.

40 comments on “Kerry: The Threshhold Credibility Candidate!

  1. markus on

    damn, the nomination is obviously a done deal…
    1. do you expect clark to stay in the race after he places no higher than 3rd in any state next week?
    2. do you expect the dean to continue running on fumes after he get drubbed in michigan?
    3. do you expect mr. nice guy john edwards to credibly engage in the negative campaigning necessary to drive up kerry’s negatives and keep the contest going?
    Kerry has just been coronated. i’m not saying he might not be the best one for the job, but shouldn’t he have to fight for it a little bit, outside of his heroic effort in Iowa? basically he’s gotten lucky, when Howard Dean’s plane blew up at 30,000 feet so to speak. He needs much more testing, and after last nights south carolina debate, it seems clear nobody is capable of rising to the challenge.

  2. Upper left on

    Cicero, thanks for responding.
    I would be foolish to argue that national security is not important. The foremost responsibility of the President is to keep the country safe.
    Having said this, I think it is important to seperate the role of national security in actual governance from the role national security plays in elections. To borrow Ruy’s term, national security is the ultimate threshold credibility issue.
    Most voters have very limited knowledge of foriegn affairs. Nearly half can’t find Iraq on a map. I would guess that fewer than one-in-five have any real understanding of complex international issues. Given their limited information, most voters evaluate the national security competence of the Presidential candidates by weighing something they do understand: personal character.
    Voters look at a candidate and ask the question, “Does this person have what it takes to keep the country and my family safe?” If the voter concludes that the answer is no, the candidate is eliminated. If the answer is yes, the voter goes on to evaluate the candidate based on shared values and self-interest.
    The bottom line is that domestic issues are more important to 80% of the voters, but only if the candidate passes the competency threshold on national security. This is why I could never see Clark as a successful candidate. He passes the security threshold but inspires little confidence on domestic policy. Dean’s problem was that getting tagged as “angry” raised questions about his basic temperment and his ability to pass the security threshold.
    If you buy this analysis, the logical question is what does this imply in terms of the choice between Kerry and Edwards?
    Kerry has strong positives: he demonstrated patriotism by volunteering for the war; showed personal courage under fire; his temperment appears stable; and he has many years of experience. However, IMO, it would be foolish to think that he is above criticism (look at what happened to Max Cleland). The ultimate character traites required of a Commander-In-Chief are good judgement and strong leadership. Kerry can be portrayed as waffling and being indecisive. His opposition to “Gulf War I” will be exploited, as will his many tortured attempts to explain his position on the current Iraq war.
    Edwards lacks Kerry’s strengths, but is also less vulnerable to the charge of waffling. I think Edward’s lack of experience will certainly hurt him with some voters. The real question is how many? Edwards’ votes on security issues have been cautious and well within the Dem mainstream. His service on the intelligence committee gives him more experience than the four Governors that have been elected President in the last thirty years. Edwards’ basic temperment seems stable. He is unquestionably bright, articulate, and able to converse on these subjects.
    I don’t think we have any real way of knowing how well Edwards would do on these issues. He would probably loose some votes that Kerry might win. On the other hand, I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to see that Edwards has much more upside potential than Kerry as a candidate, and to see that he is much less vulnerable to the “Taxachusetts, left-of-Kennedy, liberal-elitist” label that Rove will tattoo onto Kerry’s forehead.
    To me, it seems pretty obvious that Edwards is the only guy with a legitimate shot at stopping Kerry, and our best shot, as Dems, to defeat Bush.

  3. Doug G on

    Life is just high school. In every presidential election since 1948,(when the electorate could reasonably be said to “know” the candidates’ personalities) the more “personable” candidate has won. Ask yourself this: if we were all back in high school, which Democratic candidate could defeat George W. Bush in a popularity contest? That’s easy; Johnny Edwards.

  4. cicero on

    Upper Left,
    I think you make outstanding points! And I share your view as a Clark/Kerry — but I must admit, I do like Edwards.
    I guess I do view electability through the lens (post 9/11) of strength on national security. And maybe this is a bit of a shortcoming, but I do think that it is a prerequisite for the modern president to have some experience in this area to be successful.
    Although I am a fan of Clinton, I believe is foreign (non-economic) policy was rather dismal and reactionary in his first term (he let Bosnia and Rwanda suffer), but took on its own form in his second term (Kosovo and containing Iraq) when he had some more experience.
    Bush’s inexperience came from the other angle — complete imperial idiocy as his default and now moving into some extraordinarily belated and inadequate form of internationalism.
    Given the role that the U.S. and its president plays in this post cold war world and the fluidity of international affairs, I do believe it would be beneficial to have a President who has some sense of what is going on out there and the ability to hit the ground running.
    This is not to say that it would not be nice to take back our government. I think that is critical. But I do believe that most Americans and even Dems know that in this election (against a seated President and after 9/11), we need someone who can take the mantle immediately in this confusing and occassionally scary world.

  5. Kat Bonanno on

    Kerry’s demeanor is plastic, he is thoroughly uninspiring, a follower, an imitator, a waffler and he will be rolled over by Bush.

  6. longshot on

    I was favoring Dean & Clark because of the outsider / new face angle for us DEM’s but now believe Kerry is going to win the nomination and has a very good shot at beating W.
    Kerry is untouchable, I tell you, by the Republicons (yes, “cons”) on defense, leadership, courage, “presidential” demeanor etc. etc. Just let them try to slime K and out comes the outrage that this bunch of AWOL’s and chickenhawks have any moral ground for criticism, much less any factual credibility given the tortured justifications for the aggressive pre-emption that have been destroyed.
    He CANNOT write off the South because even though he won’t carry many states, there are a lot of vets here (NC) & moderate Republicans that can be convinced to give him a fair look. We need that consideration and the turnout to save some Senate & House seats.
    K should not back off a millimeter from reasoned, tolerant positions on the wedge social issues because the suburban Indy’s and some R’s are uncomfortable with the really extreme evangelical positions. In my large family I’ve given up trying to convince the snake-handlers they have nothing to fear from diversity in the 21st century. But the Indy’s & R’s will admit grudgingly the economy is not responding to W’s policies.
    Well said earlier:
    Volunteer, wounded hero vs AWOL draft dodger.
    And put Max Cleland all over TV commercials & VFW meetings speaking for K.
    To the Dean supporters: the $100 by 2 million citizens is / was brillliant. I hope K steals it with humble acknowledgement of it’s origin.

  7. Trevor R on

    People have talked about a Kerry/Edwards ticket, and Edwards has said (predictably) that he will be no one’s veep, but what if Edwards and Clark were to team up?
    Think about it.
    They team up now, they make history and form a good rhetorical base to make a plea for democratic unity, not to mention add some excitement to both of their lagging campaigns.
    Clark as commander-in-chief. Edwards as the domestic populist. I know the idea sounds crazy to wonk-level domestic politics buffs, but I’ve spent my whole life around the uber-conservative redneck attitudes that now dominate the Republican party (I’m from Texas), and I know that this is the combo that scares them the most.
    Clark has run a lame campaign thus far, but he’s still on everyone’s mental back-burner because his foreign policy experience would be such a potent counter to Bush’s apparent trump suit. Edwards would give him the domestic booster he needs, and Clark fills in the gaps on Edwards foreign policy resume.
    Kerry is not going to do it in the southern states barring some unforseen circumstance–you’ve got to understand how much people from the south really dispise Ted Kennedy. No one should underestimate that. Southern democrats are the only ones that have a prayer of beating Bush; sometimes cliches are true.
    Clark/Edwards. They should announce it tomorrow and start campaigning together. Dean’s not electable and neither is Kerry. As for the issue of campaigning, just sell the right people on the idea and the heavy-hitters will come out to work for them and the issue of campaign management evaporates.

  8. Mara on

    As an early Clark supporter I’m not ready to write him off yet. I will, however, concede that he hasn’t caught fire, and has underperfomed on the stump. I like Edwards, and I like Kerry, too, but Edwards doesn’t really have the experience. Then again, neither did Bush. Kerry’s got experience, and a trump card on Bush – insinuations by the Bushies of being unpatriotic when questioning GW’s stance on terrorism and foreign policy just won’t hold up when thrown at Kerry.

  9. Upper left on

    It has been fascinating to watch the shifts in the debates on this site over the past few weeks. For months, the comments here were dominated by a debate between Dean supporters and Clark supporters. The Deaniacs, like me, were characterized as naive, true-believers hell-bent on nominating a candidate who would loose in the fall (this has been a bit annoying to me, given that I have over thirty years of political experience). The Clarkistas, lead by our fearless site host Ruy, were the smart, pragmatists who repeatedly lectured us on the need to nominate a candidate who could appeal to swing voters.
    What amazes me now is that many of the “pragmatists,” who were for Clark, seem to be ready to support Kerry. On the other hand, many “Deaniacs” like myself are urging people to take a hard look at Edwards. These appear to be counterintuitive shifts of position. Why are Deaniacs willing to look at the drawling Edwards? Why are Clarkistas willing to accept the North-eastern liberal Kerry?
    My guess is that our resposes to the candidates are based less on a North-South geographic axis and more on an insider-outsider axis. Those whose inclinations lead them to prioritize security and foriegn policy experience respond to insiders Clark and Kerry. Those, like myself, who are fed-up with insider dominated government, respond to the “take back our government” appeals of outsiders Dean and Edwards.
    Do others see the same pattern? Do you think my suggested explanation makes sense?
    I’m not sure what implications these observations have for our discussions. I do think most of us need to express a bit of humility. Perhaps I am premature in writing obituaries for Dean and Clark, but I don’t see much chance for either to make a comeback.
    I was wrong for thinking that Dean would win the nomination, and for failing to underestimate the ability of the media and the insiders to turn him into a human pinata. Those who supported Clark were wrong to think that a guy who wasn’t a politician, or even a Democrat until last summer, could win the nomination. So much for our great skill and insight as prognosticators!

  10. RRF on

    If you nominate mediocrity you will get a mediocre campaign and probably a mediocre president. Look at Gore! Enuff said. That makes the argument for electability a false one……electability right now seems to me to be the rough equivalent of mediocrity (Kerry) and in a general election that just isn’t going to do it.
    Remember this phrase next january 20 folks:
    Dated Dean, Married Kerry, Woke up with Bush!

  11. Jasper on

    Ruy, don’t you think that if Edwards got himself some experience as a Vice-President it would complete the package? In 8 years he would be a rock star of a Democratic Presidential candidate and a GOP killer. Hopefully Kerry will pick him. And hopefully Kerry will find a way to win. A Kerry/Edwards ticket should make a play for Ohio.

  12. Mara on

    The comments about being a veteran not being a winner in a general election are forgetting one thing: those veterans who ran and lost (Gore, McCain, Dole, etc.) all ran before 9/11. 9/11 changed the electorates view of combat experience. My guess is that they now view combat experience as one way a candidate is tested. Kerry was tested and he came out with flying colors. He’s solid. He volunteered. He fought, and then he came back and said – “I don’t support this war anymore”, and he earned the right to say that. He’s got the credentials to say that, so the public may also see him as a thoughtful candidate.
    Kerry looks presidential. I don’t think he’s going to melt in the GA. I think he’s going to get stronger.

  13. molly bloom on

    This is an intersting thread. Ruy’s right, on paper, Kerry looks good. On paper, Clark looks good. On the campaing trail… Kerry, right now, at least is doing well. Clark, on the other hand, camped out in NH for a month and only barely beat out Edwards for 3rd place. NH was Clark’s opprotunity to make hay out of Dean’s IA defeat. Clark does not poll well among women. Apparently his knowledge about the legal and medical issues about abortion is abysmal (see Tapped). Hopefully this is the end of the Clark is infinitely more electable meme that Ruy has been on since he started this site. He is not. Time to accept that and move on.
    I am not going to rehash Dean’s status other than to say, he probably should have replaced Trippi shortly after the Gore endorsement.
    Regarding Edwards, the plaintiff’s attorney. The GOP really doesn’t want to go there- Ask Lauch Faircloth.

  14. Upper left on

    Your whole “threshhold credibility” argument makes sense as far as it goes, but it is about as superficial as the “analysis” on CNN. Unfortunately it is probably a reflection of the dominant view within the punditocracy, which is why we are probably going to end up with a weak nominee.
    Kerry looks good to the primary voters now for the reasons you outline. He seems credible and he doesn’t seem to have any glaring deficiencies. He doesn’t inspire passion but he seems plausable. However, I fear that Kerry will melt under closer scrutiny by the press and the Rep onslaught.
    He is basicly Al Gore from Massachusetts: a stiff, wooden, boring campaigner; a careful, lifetime politician who has vaselated on tough issues; a patrician who tries to talk like a regular Joe and frequently comes off as less than convincingly authentic. We tried this race in 2000 and lost.
    Throw in Kerry’s geographic problem, his close association with Kennedy, and his long, liberal voting record; and you have a candidate with serious perception problems with the very swing voters you keep talking about.
    Do we have a better choice?
    Dean is badly damaged. His campaign is in disarray, and apparently he has spent most of his money. I don’t see how or where he can stop Kerry.
    Clark has demonstrated the limitations of on-the-job training as a politician. His passion and knowledge on security issues is obvious, his lack of nuanced understanding of domestic politics is equally obvious. His vulnerability to the “not a real Dem” charge dooms him in a head-to-head fight against Kerry.
    That leaves us with Edwards. The guy is an amazing campaigner, with a message and a compelling personal story that are completely in sync. The issue is whether his rather limited political resume makes him unacceptable. Frankly, I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows.
    The question we should all be asking ourselves is whether the risk of nomonating Kerry is greater than the risk of nominating Edwards. My instincts tell me Kerry is too much like Gore, with too many additional vulnerabilities. I would rather take the unknown risk of Edwards with all his charismatic, upside potential. Whether he can stop Kerry is a subject for another post.

  15. frankly0 on

    While it’s true that relatively few Presidents have come directly from the Senate into the WH, it’s always hard, of course, to make a lot of meaningful generalizations about electability for President based on numbers. The basic problem is that there are so few cases to talk about at all — how many Presidential elections have there been in modern times? Only 25 in the last century, of course, and many were in periods of war, or depression, or scandal, or inflation, or whatever, and so practically have to be thrown out as a basis of comparison. One has to make predictions of as complex a phenomenon as one is going to find based on a number of data points that is passingly small.
    But back to the subject. There are downside to being in the Senate, of course. But from Kerry’s point of view, I think there is a huge upside as well. Namely, the bills and ideas that are proposed in the Senate are, because they must have national appeal, NOT going to be of an extreme cast. In contrast, laws and ideas proposed in, say, a liberal STATE are far more likely to be extreme, because the leftmost 50% of a liberal state will be far more extreme than the leftmost extreme of the entire nation. Democratic governors coming from liberal states will likely have far more on THEIR record that can be opened up for ridicule than a Democratic Senator from a liberal state. Happily for Kerry, he spent VERY little time in politics at the state level.
    It’s striking to me how little the Republicans seem to have on Kerry, from what I’ve seen so far. They plan to go after him because of votes for tax increases, reducing spending on the CIA, and so-called partial birth abortions, for example. Though some damage might be inflicted using these talking points, I think it won’t be hard at all for Kerry to provide pretty sensible answers to these issues that would satisfy most voters. I have certainly seen nothing that would resemble a Willie Horton furlough type of issue coming from either the Republicans or his Dem opponents.
    Maybe there’s something more out there on Kerry, but it seems to me unlikely that we would not have seen hints of it already if there were.

  16. Mike on

    And how well have veterans run in recent years:
    Anyone who thinks that Kerry’s veteran status will help him in the general election is delusional.

  17. Wagster on

    I will get to the topic at hand, but in a round-about way…
    Since what Ruy called the Bush State-of-the-Union thud, I’ve become much more sanguine about the Dems’ chances. Bush played his election music in the most favorable venue imaginable, and people didn’t like the melody. The White House’s problem is this, I think: Bush sincerely believes his life mission is to fight terrorism. And his Svengali Rove reads the polls that tell him terrorism is the issue where they have the strongest advantage over the Dems. On the other hand, the U.S. electorate — while they definitely want to feel protected against terrorism — is now tired of living scared. They see other problems facing us, and they want those problems addressed. They want to get out from under the shadow of 9/11, although I think they will be hesitant to admit this in a poll or focus group.
    So getting back to the topic at hand. In basketball, they say that your offense should take advantage of what the defense is giving you. If Bush has really turned into President Ahab, who is the candidate to set the contrast against him the best? I think it might be cheery optimist Edwards, and I say that reluctantly because as you might have noticed, I have been a Clark supporter. When you look at it that way, Edwards’ inexperience in foreign policy might even be a plus, because it will rope-the-dopes… make them try to scare the people more, make them play the tired tune we’re all sick of.

  18. Eric E on

    You guys run a really good discussion here, but is it just my browser that makes it appear in “last in first out” order? Can that be changed?
    I’ll add my votes in support of “decisiveness” and “military service” as very key elements to winning a big chunk of core voters, especially in a couple of the “red states”. I think some of the voters in the middle truly respect Bush (and maybe even Cheney) for standing up for what he believes in, even though those voters recognize that what the leaders claim to believe in is wrong! Bush is weak because those supporters don’t really agree with him in their heart, although they’re part of his supposed “core support”, so they could easily turn on him in favor of someone who really deserves their respect.
    Clark may not be much of a campaigner, but I still think he seems most presidential based on the criteria in Ruy’s post and in this thread. He provides the greatest number of decisive counterpoints to Bush–he’s at least as strong as Bush on items like decisiveness, and he’s the opposite of Bush on items like honesty, ethics, and respect he accords his subordinates, e.g. the soldiers acting as flypaper in Iraq…. I hope Kerry turns out to be almost as good.
    Eric E

  19. Paul K on

    I guess part of my argument against the standard storyline being now told is that I don’t think we’ve had a very clear picture of these campaigns. I think Dean overall ran a much broader campaign than the pols pretend he did. They made a tactical decision as the race tightened (in the last two weeks) to go to his populist message and attack Gephardt directly. Both proved disasterous in a eight man race.
    Dean’s situation was interesting in Iowa because he basically found himself in a head-to-head battle with Gephardt, and frankly, they bloodied each other. Democrats were mobilized, however, and (unlike the general election) had somewhere else to go. Even in that respect it might be telling that Dean did significantly better than Gephardt.
    A large part of my point is that these primaries are not at all indicative of the challenges and strategies that will make a difference in the general campaign. I don’t think there is a Southern state the Dems can win (outside of Florida, my original home state). But an aggressive campaign might just force Bush to waste resources there. It’s going to take more than a Southern accent and a (real) military background to win.
    But as for sputtering out, we’ll see. A lot of money was spent to build a large lead in these states, and unlike most other candidates, he has organization across the country. I don’t know if he can pull the campaign together, but if he does it will be through concinving the voters that the candidate is different than the caricature (which was the tactic he took with moderate success in New Hampshire). As one pol put it the other night, he’s already been through the fire.
    Does that mean that he can beat Bush? I’m not sure any Democrat, outside of (Bill) Clinton, can beat Bush. But as I suggested in my last post, the measure of “electability” should more be focused on who can make the strongest case for themselves. Dean has taken some serious lumps in the media and shown some very positive characteristics in response. These things will matter more ultimately, I think, than the simple judgements that pols label candidates with after the fact, such as “likeability. ”
    (Was the problem with Gore that “people just didn’t believe he was truthful,” as pols like to tell us, or was it that he did an absolutely pathetic job of countering media inventions and the public perception that followed?)
    2. He let the campaign get ahead of his real message and record (i.e., he ran on process (“changing American politics or at least the Dem party”) rather than substance.
    Now, he might have run on his idea or records, particularly his very wise health care plans and less wise (politically) tax plans and war criticism, but he did not.
    I think Dean has completely allowed his campaign to shape him — with good reason — because that is why he got as far as he did.
    Alas, he should have retooled — i.e., gotten a bit more serious and substantive — two weeks before Iowa rather than two weeks after. To that extent, he has shown himself as running a rather poor campaign that will likely soon sputter out. Thus, time and his repeated losses have rendered the “electability” issue with regards to Dean somewhat moot.

  20. yanman on

    A very discussion, I have to say. A couple of points:
    1. I couldn’t agree more with the comments concerning the resonance of Kerry’s military service among “working-class” folks. His story is a wonderful one, and if he becomes the nominee, it will no doubt be repeated over and over again until we are all sick of it. In many ways Kerry is as uninspiring, boring, and tedious as Gore, but in this one way he can partially innoculate himself from the patrician tag. But is that enough?
    2. To my mind, Edwards is far and away the most charismatic candidate in the field and the one the White House probably fears the most (if they really fear anyone). He of course will have to fend off the attacks on plaintiffs lawyers, which I don’t think will be as bad as everyone thinks. Edwards story is convincign and authentic: his mill background and family tragedy help to protect him from the inevitable claim that he is a greedy, shiftless ambulance chaser. The problem, as identified by many, is that he seems like a young boy (though he is wearing his hair a little differently I noticed). Could he be a commander in chief? My answer to that is, did anyone really imagine W as a commander in chief? Edwards needs to reassure voters that he will be as tough, if not tougher on terrorism than Bush. I’m not sure how he can do that, but he is able to pull it off (he better do it quickly), he still may be able to claim the nomination. I’m hoping he can do it.
    3. The question really is, what would rather ha

  21. Passing Shot on

    I’m with decon on this. The C-o-C needs to project an image of decisiveness and conviction. Kerry’s image fairly or unfairly) is of a waffler. Supporters point to his war vote as “nuanced,” showing depth of thought; but the metamorphosis of his explanation from “I wanted to allow the Admin. to send a message” to “I didn’t know Bush would f__ it up as badly as he has” to “we caught Saddam, so the war was justified” to “we didn’t expect the Admin. to lie to us about the threat,” indicates an opportunist.
    Kerry’s fond of saying “We need a president who isn’t ‘right and weak,’ or ‘strong and wrong,’ but ‘strong and right.'” Pity he hasn’t shown compelling evidence of either.

  22. cicero on

    You make excellent remarks about what Dean’s campaign could have been like. But unfortunately these comments do not comport with the reality of how he has run his campaign. To wit:
    1. He has blown a staggering $40 million dollars in wasted advertising space.
    2. He let the campaign get ahead of his real message and record (i.e., he ran on process (“changing American politics or at least the Dem party”) rather than substance.
    Now, he might have run on his idea or records, particularly his very wise health care plans and less wise (politically) tax plans and war criticism, but he did not.
    I think Dean has completely allowed his campaign to shape him — with good reason — because that is why he got as far as he did.
    Alas, he should have retooled — i.e., gotten a bit more serious and substantive — two weeks before Iowa rather than two weeks after. To that extent, he has shown himself as running a rather poor campaign that will likely soon sputter out. Thus, time and his repeated losses have rendered the “electability” issue with regards to Dean somewhat moot.

  23. Paul K on

    What continues to bother me about these “electability” discussions is the way they focus overwhelmingly on static issues. Do we need any more evidence than what the GOP did to Max Clelend to illustrate that military service and a strong voting record ultimately mean nothing because Bush and Co. will lie, distort, and abuse the public trust on all of these issues.
    In an way I did not myself expect, the past two weeks have done more to convince me that Dean makes a far stronger national candidate than most of the others. It’s not simply that he has an strong moderate record as governor (though that helps). Nor is it that he has put forward very rational and middle of the road proposals throughout his run.
    (These rather extensive proposals, a preview of the national campaign he would run, have been largely ignored by the media, which seems genuinely confused by a race of more than two people. The lack of attention isn’t so much the result of ineffective campaigning, since really NO ONE’s detailed positions have received any strong attention from the media.)
    No, the reason Dean strikes me as most “electable” has to do with his ability and willingness to shape the campaign this fall, not to be shaped by it. (His response to the whole “scream” incident showed the kind of flexibility and humor that candidates need to have about themselves.) A look at the dead campaigns of the past show them littered with fine candidates who simply had no clue how to run a campaign. As Dubya has shown, nothing matters about the candidate but the campaign that you run.
    Voters have flocked to Kerry en masse for no other reason than that they SEE him as electable. I’m not saying Dean MUST be the candidate, but taking a step back and looking at the fall campaign suggests that we need a candidate who will be very much like him, or likely lose.

  24. HSG on

    With all the talk of Kerry’s possible vulnerability against W in the fall, we are forgetting that Edwards has a weak point which Rove et. al. can exploit in the fall. This point is not that he is relatively inexperienced or that he is not that popular in his home state of N.C., although these will undoubtedly be used against him. The weak point is that Edwards is a lawyer, and even worse, made his fortune as a plaintiffs’ attorney. For better or worse (and I think it is the latter) many people share the view (or delusion which is probably a lot more accurate) that lawyers are akin to a plague of locusts, and that plaintiffs’ personal injury attorneys are the worst of the species.
    It is true that Kerry is also an attorney. However, most of his legal experience was as a prosecutor, and people tend to think of prosecutors as part of the “good guys” who are trying to rid our streets of criminal vermin a la the much watched TV series “Law and Order” and its progeny.
    This is not to say that Kerry is necessarily the best cadidate to take on W in the fall. I merely want to say that some of the wouldn’t Edwards be so much better than Kerry speculation should be taken with at least a grain of salt, if not a whole shaker of it.

  25. Dignan on

    What does everyone think if Kerry adds Clark to the ticket? Or Edwards, although he has said he is not interested in the VP spot.

  26. Paul Criswell on

    The two candidates who really seem to be gaining traction, Kerry and Edwards, have been relentlessly pounding the populist theme. Ruy, you seem to think that this theme is unlikely to be adequate to the task of defeating George Bush in a post-9/11 environment. I disagree entirely. I cite an interesting passage from the American Prospect article that you referenced,
    “From and Penn, however, appear to have more genuine grounds for opposing populism. They believe that while populist appeals help with the Democratic base, they hurt Democratic chances among upscale voters — whom From calls “new-economy swing voters” and whom Penn has labeled “wired workers.” They blame Gore’s loss in key border states such as Missouri on the defection of these voters, and warn that if Democrats persist in pressing populist themes in November 2002, they will lose those states again.”
    The major change here is the outsourcing of “wired worker” jobs to people overseas. I have worked in high technology for twenty years. Although socially progressive, the “professionals” or “wired workers” were always economically liberitarian, confident in their ability to fend for themselves in a 21st Century economy. In each company I have worked for, it has taken exactly one lay-off in the engineering department to turn everyone into progressives. The notion that EVEN THEY could be victims to macroeconomic forces beyond their control was a paridigm shifitng event. (Interestingly, this is the exact same paradigm shift that changed American voters from Roaring Twenties free-market, Hooverite Republicans into New Dealers.)
    Wired Workers now understand the need for government intervention and regulation to keep the playing field level. They are among the most pro-growth group in the nation And they see no conflict between the two.
    This message will resonate with a huge portion of the electorate, and is the only way we will shift the political winds our way.

  27. sk on

    Excellent summary of Kerry’s strengths, relative to the other candidates, and a sold case for Kerry overall. I even believe his record is far more defensible to moderate swing voters than that of Bush. In addition to fleshing out some key themes for the general election, Kerry must curb the weakness in his q&a style, which is to sometimes talk a little too much. When he explains stuff to smithereens, it often comes off as patronizing (not unlike Gore), or worse, equivocation. If his handlers will help him get a grip on this tendency, he can go all the way.

  28. decon on

    You include the right categories in your macro assesment of electability, but blow it in your comparative analysis. Additionally, you neglect a micro assesment of Kerry’s chances in the states that really matter.
    A Commander in Chief must be decisive. Kerry has been on both sides of both wars in Iraq. As with McCain, Bush will suggest that Kerry is so haunted by his Vietnam experience that he is mentally unfit to be commander in chief.
    On domestic issues, Kerry is the most liberal of the four remaining viable candidates. When the American electorate realizes that he is slightly to the left of his good friend Ted Kennedy, they will be somewhat disappointed.
    And on the stump? Turgid, frigid, and insufferable. The only color comes from his wife. And if people think Howard Dean doesn’t wear well, just wait until they get to know T-Ray-Za.
    Now, to the micro issues. Taking the states Al Gore won (excepting Florida!) as a baseline, each Democrat must make a plausible case to retain each. They must also show that they have a clear opportunity to win one of the following: Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, or Nevada.
    Demonstrating a comparative advantage for Kerry (against any of the other Democrats) in these states would, I think, require a radical misreading of his legislative record, and an unfounded optimism regarding Kerry’s ability to re-invent and define who he is.

  29. decon on

    You include the right categories in your macro assesment of electability, but blow it in your comparative analysis. Additionally, you neglect a micro assesment of Kerry’s chances in the states that really matter.
    A Commander in Chief must be decisive. Kerry has been on both sides of both wars in Iraq. As with McCain, Bush will suggest that Kerry is so haunted by his Vietnam experience that he is mentally unfit to be commander in chief.
    On domestic issues, Kerry is the most liberal of the four remaining viable candidates. When the American electorate realizes that he is slightly to the left of his good friend Ted Kennedy, they will be somewhat disappointed.
    And on the stump? Turgid, frigid, and insufferable. The only color comes from his wife. And if people think Howard Dean doesn’t wear well, just wait until they get to know T-Ray-Za.
    Now, to the micro issues. Taking the states Al Gore won (excepting Florida!) as a baseline, each Democrat must make a plausible case to retain each. They must also show that they have a clear opportunity to win one of the following: Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, or Nevada.
    Demonstrating a comparative advantage for Kerry (against any of the other Democrats) in these states would, I think, require a radical misreading of his legislative record, and an unfounded optimism regarding Kerry’s ability to re-invent and define who he is.

  30. Sara on

    I am not hearing a clear message from Kerry with one exception, he seems to be going after Bush on the issues of Corruption and graft — and if he develops this, lays out specifics, I suspect it could be a reasonable issue. Hanging the Enron and Halliburton sign around Bush and Cheney’s necks would not hurt.
    What troubles me is Kerry doesn’t seem to have a critique of Bush on Health Care and Education. I know he voted for “No Child Left Behind” along with Ted Kennedy on final passage, but when that was debated on the Senate Floor, there were a whole slew of amendments — and taken together his votes on those could be the basis for claiming to have predicted problems. Right now State Legislators and School Board types all over the country are up in arms about this — and if Kerry could organize their opposition, it could be fairly potent. He needs a visable Educational Leader in his campaign to accomplish this.
    He is also surprisingly vague on Health Care — but through Kennedy and some Mass based experts, he could have a powerful message.
    I know Rand Beers quit the Bush White House and went to work for Kerry — and Beers is one of out top experts in counterrerrorism. I’s like to see more evidence of that level of critique of Cheney-Bush in the Kerry Campaign.
    If Kerry is going to have half a chance, he has to take on matters such as these, and start setting the message. It is really a matter of putting Bush on the Defensive and keeping him there.

  31. Jon on

    The difference in electability between the angry Yankee and the Dour Yankee just does not seem like a victory for electability to me. Although I am happy that the voters are trying to be pragmatic instead of ‘sending a message’
    We need someone who can make an upbeat populist argument for centrist policies (that won’t scare middle class moderates with modest 401K plans) in a way that also appeals to rural America. We ALL secretely know who the whitehouse is secretely afraid of.

  32. DPG on

    DR has really captured the mood and mindset of the Dem electorate into this one dead-on right analysis. Dean had his chance and faltered with recovery doubtful. Edwards has a small window of opportunity right now to win SC (and Missouri and OK, AZ?) and swing it his way to the nomination; but he’ll need to make a compelling case for himself at the debate tonight and to the voters via the friendly free press every day until the 3rd. Clark, it seems, needs a minor miracle (Final Four, thats not too shabby!) Kerry has gone from near-cellar-dweller to clear-frontrunner in just the past 5 or 6 weeks. Surprising strong wins in both Iowa and NH has, for the moment, effectively confirmed his tenacity, resiliance and electability.

  33. Ben P on

    I think your point about Kerry and his military record cannot be underestimated. A lot of people at sites like Kos don’t necessarily know how highly respected military service is – not the politics of war, but the simple fact that one is willing to put their life on the line so somone else doesn’t have to. There was an article in the Prospect a while back emphasizing how highly regarded the military is amongst working class Americans. For many, it is their ticket to a better life, and an honorable and patriotic ticket at that. Joining the military is like enrolling in a Swedish-style welfare state in some regards, and thus for those less well off, can serve as a means to a better life – via education especially. The fact that Kerry – as someone from a priveleged background – volunteered for not one, but two tours of duty, says a lot to a lot of people.
    Ben P

  34. frankly0 on

    One thing about Kerry that does not get much noted (though at least Joe Klein seems quite aware of it) is that he has always done very well with working class voters. This seems very much to conflict with his patrician aloof image, but it demonstrates that there’s more to his appeal than meets the eye.
    My explanation for this is that his war experiences, and his support of veteran’s causes, do a great deal to convince working class voters that, on a very basic level, Kerry shares their values. I think that many of the stories of his heroism in Vietnam are not merely demonstrations of his love of country, but also of his sacrifice for his “brothers” in the service.
    Interestingly, my recollection is that the polls in Iowa started to turn around most dramatically after Kerry reconnected with a guy whose life he saved in Vietnam in battle. They had been ambushed in their swift boat, both the man and Kerry were injured, and the man fell overboard. The boat sped away, but then Kerry apparently noticed that the man was missing, and he directed the boat back to the man, against enemy fire, and though Kerry’s own arm had been hit, managed to pull the man into the boat.
    I guess the reaction many voters may have had to that incident, related by the man himself, had to be: Kerry’s patrician? Aloof? Excuse me, he put his own life in danger to save another man, and he somehow doesn’t care about other people? That really doesn’t compute at ALL.
    The point here is that Kerry’s heroism in the war, especially when related by veterans of all kinds of backgrounds, does more than establish national security cred, it does for him exactly what he most needs, given his natural “stiffness”: it humanizes him, and makes it seem inconceivable that he could be at base the kind of uncaring technocrat so many fear in liberals.

  35. dt on

    clark has a dreamy bio and on paper is an awesome candidate; but in reality he comes across as this maniacal robot that’s upset because noone seems to understand what it’s talking about. within his limited sphere of expertise, he is indeed stunningly articulate, but ask him about domestic policy and you can watch his eyes light up like a feral puppydog while his mouth tells you he’s pro-healthcare and pro-fairness.
    edwards is kennedy with a southern drawl, clinton without the compromised morality. a little thin on the commander-in-chief front, but his horatio alger version of living the american dream is dead sexy, and he sure can work a crowd. i think he does the best in a general election against w (i also think everyone else secretly thinks this).
    dean lost me a long time before the IHAS speech. anyone politically tone-deaf enough to propose rolling back middle-class tax cuts shouldn’t be allowed the nomination.
    kerry leaves me cold. i can’t understand how someone who is supposedly so personally bad-ass (rides a harley, snowboards, killed for his country, etc) can be so uninspiring a speaker. it’s like listening to someone read harper’s aloud after downing too many cocktails.
    but hey, abb, right?

  36. Ben P on

    As usual, your analysis is strong. I don’t think a lot of Dean supporters get that their man does not appear credible to the run-of-the-mill voter as commander-in-chief. This is huge. His big coming out party, January 19, and he came off small, decidedly minor league.
    Its not about issues. Sure, Dean was a moderate governor. But it is also about demeanor, profile, image, etc.. Also, Dean will be defined as ultra-liberal because of the terms of the debate – ie Bush will run on tax cuts and the Iraq War, and on both counts, Dean represents the most “extreme” Democratic position.
    As for Edwards and Clark – Edwards is better. Clark just does not seem to have what it takes right now to run a presidential campaign and appear credible by the end. I would love it if he proves me wrong, but right now, I haven’t seen it. I actually worry Clark might be the most “unelectable” at the end of the day. Do you really want to entrust the D nomination to someone who has never run a political campaign in his life?
    Ben P


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