Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Success and Failure

Where Dean succeeded: he let Democrats feel that they had something worthwhile to contribute to the public dialog.

Where Dean failed: he didn't himself contribute anything worthwhile to the public dialog. Or, at least, he didn't in such a way that inspired support outside his core-constituency.

 Just think back to where the Democrats were after the 2002 election. They felt humiliated, gun-shy and all-around totally unconvinced of their own ability to affect the public agenda. Part of this came about because of the increasingly extreme attacks on "The Liberal Agenda" by the right. But it was helped by nervous leaders who were more concerned about re-election then they were with actually doing anything meaningful for their constituents. The latter were encouraged by political models that suggested that traditional Democratic programs were no longer "winners" in the political equation. The believe had become wide-spread that the American people were, as the GOP insisted, becoming increasingly conservative and thus rejected what the Democratic party stood for.

Dean stepped into this mix with a simple message, "Put a Democratic agenda up against a Republican agenda and the Democratic agenda will win every time." Dean stripped politics down to a core of ideas vs. ideas. He sold the idea that Democratic ideas were simply better than Republican ideas. The only reason, Dean argued, that Democrats had had failed in recent years only because they weren't willing to fight for them any more.

This was a message of empowerment that Democrats needed to hear at a time when many were in doubt about Democrats ever being able to contribute anything useful to the political dialog. Democrats, dispirited after the debacles of 2000 and 2002, flocked to Dean's message because it is precisely what they wanted to hear.

There was only one problem: once they accepted the basic proposition that Democrats might have better ideas than Republicans, Dean failed to convinced them that he had ideas that were better than his opponents. It's not that he didn't have those ideas. He just spent so much time talking about empowerment that he failed to transition correctly into talking about action.

"You have the power!" was a message that resonated in the Spring and Summer of 2003. But it lost its appeal in the Fall of 2003.

"Yeah, yeah! I know, 'We have the power'. But the power to do what?" was the thing people started asking of Dean.

Dean had answers to these questions. But he was so caught up in the "rock-star" appeal of his candidacy that he failed to explain what it was people had the power to do. Instead, the continued emphasis on "rah-rah go-get-em" left people with a dual impression: (1) that Dean didn't really have answers and (2) he liked the cheerleading more than the leading (and that maybe he was just the "angry man" that was his media image)..

I am not trying to say that this was a conscious process in the mind of the voters in the Fall of 2003. But it may have been the dynamic that was going on beneath the surface as voters, initially attracted to him for his message of empowerment, soured on him as they waited for something more. Eventually they gave up on him and started looking around at the alternatives. And there was Kerry just waiting for them to give him another listen.


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