Friday, June 11, 2004

Is Howard Dean the Democratic Reagan?

Digby deals with this question here.

The short version: not yet.

The longer version: Dean has yet to articulate the "bigger vision" that Reagan had and therefore hasn't yet offered a program that will permanently alter the course of the Democratic party.

I pretty much agree with both of these assessments. Though I think Digby risk falling into an old trap: that Reagan's success had to do with his ideology. That had something to do with it. But I really don't think his electoral success was dependent upon his ideas. It was how he presented those ideas that mattered.

I've argued before that there is a substantial portion of the electorate that does not and never will really understand the issues. The 10-20% of the muddled middle simply don't have any fixed ideology. They are generally undecided leading up to the election for the simple reason that they don't know what they want. A politician can win over this group not by offering an ideological program that matches theirs (since they don't have one) but by simply persuading them that the ideological program you are offering is the one that they want.

So a Democratic Reagan will require more then just a "bigger vision". That person will need to be able to sell it in a way that demonstrates that they really stand by what they say (even if, in reality, they may compromise, as Reagan often did). Reagan was a believer. A Democratic Reagan will also need to be a believer.

Dean is a believer and isn't afraid to admit it.

Also, I don't think Dean's failure to get more than 20% of the Democratic vote failed from a lack of a "bigger vision". The simple truth is that Dean was an unknown and a lot of Democrats were so afraid of another four years of Bush that they didn't want to go up against him with an unknown.

Dean also didn't have a machine behind him that could represent him to the public and take positions within the government if he were to win. At least with Kerry, we have a candidate with a lot of people who can act as spokespeople (I've always felt Dean lacked for having any designated "go-to" people for the media to talk to) and Kerry has an apparatus that can take over the reigns of power once he is sworn into office. Dean came so far out of the mainstream (not ideologically, just lack of connections) that it really wasn't clear what a Dean administration would look like.

Considering where he came from, I've always considered Dean's showing in the primary season to have been really good. He didn't get the nomination, but he didn't lose because he managed to alter the course of the race in the direction he wanted it to go. He trail blazed the course, but fell short of the finish line in the end.

I like the comparison of Dean to Reagan '72 or even Reagan '76. Dean has the opportunity now to build the machine he didn't have before and to build a reputation for solid thinking and to, yes, put forth that "bigger vision" that Digby talks about.

Shorter version: Dean isn't the Democratic Reagan. But he could be some day.


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