Thursday, October 16, 2003

Clark Impressions

Matt Stoller has a fascinating (and long) post up on The Clark Sphere about political spaces. He talks about how the traditional campaigns are defined more by the ambitions of the operatives involved in them and less by the actual politics of  the individual candidates. He posts the following experience he had with the Kerry campaign as an illustration:

One of the things that strikes me as odd about several 'insider' Democratic campaigns that I have worked in is how no one talks about politics in the office. I started volunteering for John Kerry in late 2002, and the first time I showed up to lick stamps, sitting around the table were nine nice milquetoast individuals who were shocked, just shocked, that I would be angry enough to discuss how betrayed I felt by George W. Bush and our leadership. After a few wan parries of what I was saying, they just kind of got back to the random chit chatting about their careers, where they lived, whatever. I had entered the office steaming mad, sure that the anger I saw on the blogs about the mid-term elections would find a ready echo among those volunteering for the then front-runner among the Democrats. Yet, in fact, the lack of passion and embrace of mediocrity was staggering. Few knew or cared about the mendacity of the Bush administration, or to the extent they did, it was a vague distaste that our team wasn't 'in'. One of the chief fundraisers there told me about how her whole goal was to get into the White House, and got angry at me for talking about politics.

I heard a (possibly apocryphal) story recently that John Kerry had told some people that his biggest mistake in this campaign was underestimating the level of anger Democrats felt towards George W. Bush. The very fact that he was surprised by this is as good an indication as any that he isn't ready to represent the party.

The fascinating thing about Dean is that he didn't start out as the anti-establishment candidate. When he first started campaigning his intention was to run primarily on a platform of universal health care. But, as he talked with people on the road, he noticed something that a lot of other political insiders had not: there were a lot of angry people out here. And he noticed that they were as angry with the failure of the Democrats to hold the Republicans accountable for their actions (impeachment, the 2000 election and 2002 elections, etc.) as they were with the Republicans for perpetrating those offenses.

The difference between Dean and the rest of the field was that Dean recognized the anger and frustration as something real and he acted on that knowledge! He stood up at the DNC winter meeting and scolded the Democratic leadership for repeatedly rolling over in the face of the Republican juggernaut.

His success has been his reward for paying attention.

The ironic thing about it is that, on paper, Dean may not be the best person we could chose to be President. But he "got it" at a gut level that demonstrates the first quality of leadership: doing what needs to be done when no one else sees what needs being done.

I've had some problems of late with Dean. I've been concerned that Clark really might be the better candidate to go up against Bush (the old "electability" problem). So I've been conflicted in my support for Dean. But the mere fact that Dean was astute enough to pick up on something that no one else noticed is enough for me to continue supporting him.

And yes, I include Clark in that group. He may have been more critical of Bush than the Democratic leadership was, but I don't think he saw the real anger any more than Kerry did. Clark just had the excuse that he wasn't a politician so he wasn't expected to notice it. I strongly suspect that, if Clark were in Congress, he would have joined Kerry in supporting the authorization bill.

He can say the he wouldn't have, but all we have is his word on that.

I attended last week's Clark meetup. I had meant to write up a report on it but every time I did so it just came out as a by-the-numbers accounting of the events with no real sense of what the meeting meant to me.

After some long thought here's my impression of the people I met there: while they are as concerned as any Dean supporter about the direction the country is going, they are driven more by fear than anger. They are worried about what might go wrong then they are uplifted by the hope of what might go right.

When I go to Dean meetups I meet people who are afraid that Bush might win another term. However, there is also an overriding sense that Dean represents hope for the future. Not just that he might beat Bush but that he might reverse the downward spiral in Democratic fortunes that has been brought about by the party's failure to tap into the zeitgeist of the rank-n-file.

But the feeling I got at the Clark meetup was that, while some of them might be pissed off at the leadership, they are even more afraid that Dean will implode in the general election. They want a safer bet.

I don't think this kind of defensive strategy will work anymore (if it ever did). The Democrats ran on defense in 2000 and 2002 (and in 1998 as well, but the Republicans were so offensive at that time that it produced a backlash in the electorate). Running on defense makes you look weak and afraid. You have to take the fight to the bastards. You can't rely on just electoral trends and nice shiny resumes. You have to offer people a feeling of hope for the future.

This is not an attack on Clark. He may very well run such a campaign (I like his "New American Patriotism" approach to taking back the flag). But I still can't shake the feeling that many of his supporters are there primarily out of a fear of the alternative rather than a positive feeling about their chosen standard bearer.

This was just my first impression. I might be biased. I might be wrong.

I hope I am.


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