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Democrats get real

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
22 January 2004

It’s rather early to hazard sage appraisals of the race for the Democratic nomination – but let’s not let shortage of evidence deter us.

One pleasure in the Iowa outcome is that it smacks the pundits around and replenishes the sense that politics is, to some degree, open. Senator John Kerry is supposed to have bottomed out weeks ago, suffering from staleness, fatigue, and organizational chaos, only to have come roaring back to win the caucuses with 38 percent of the vote. John Edwards is supposed to have suffered from inexperience, youth, and (again) organizational shortfalls, and he came in second with 32 percent. In last week’s column, I wrote about how much of the rhetoric, both from the candidates and the pundits, was “anti-politics”. The Iowa voters seem to have other ideas. There, at any rate, politics was the winner.

The smart money was on Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt, guardians by default of crucial wings of the party, and universally said to have fielded impressive campaigns – gung-ho legions streaming into the state over recent weeks to rouse their voters to turn out for the strange, semi-deliberative caucuses. The pundits debated whether Gephardt’s phalanx of balding, bulging blue-collar folks in cloth caps and driving pick-ups would outnumber and outdo Dean’s phalanx of trimmer, sprier Deaniacs wearing orange stocking caps and driving Volvos. Gephardt had most of the unions; Dean, the service and government employees. Dean ended up with a third-place 18 percent; Gephardt fourth with a humiliating 11 percent.

If there is a Democratic Establishment, Dick Gephardt would have to be part of it – perhaps the only significant candidate who qualifies. And the voters weren’t having any of it. Was it because Gephardt had lost his flat Midwestern earnestness? Not at all. It turned out that Iowa voters, universally flattered by the candidates for their independence and acumen, were looking for something more than Midwestern vowels – something quite else.

What we learned is that, in Iowa at least, they were not looking for either traditional political leadership or organizational sponsorship. Al Gore and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin could not swing it for Howard Dean. Unions don’t seem to have counted so much, but neither did nontraditional organizations like MoveOn.org – not decisively.

The conventional wisdom about the Dean movement – and it’s fair to call it a movement – is that it has mobilized the vast anger against George W. Bush and kindled it to a white heat. Dean was angry, which to his followers was a good thing, as much as – or even because – the pundits clucked and choked on his “gaffes”. Dean was blunt. Dean minced no words. This was good news for Republicans. The country wants to be lulled, not roused. Dean spoke only to the Deaniacs.

Here, then, is a hypothesis as to what happened in Iowa: A critical mass of angry Democrats, independents, and those who for all sorts of reasons mistrust the Bush White House has moved to a second phase of coming to grips with a presidency that antagonizes and scares them. Phase One is the recognition that America faces an emergency of colossal proportions. The accompanying mindset is anger. Phase Two is the recognition that the country is vast, variegated, and lacking any ideologically obvious majority. The accompanying mindset is tactical hardheadedness – a considered resolve to win by crafting a majority.

John Kerry and John Edwards may have infuriated antiwar voters, who are not negligible in Iowa, but most of these voters have gotten past their fury. They recognize that any Democratic candidate – Dean, Kerry, Clark, Edwards, anyone but Dennis Kucinich – whatever his original position on the war, will have a hard time extricating the USA from Iraq if he succeeds Bush as president on January 21, 2005. They like Kerry’s and Edwards’ manners for different reasons; they like their résumés and something about their personas. But mainly, over and above any policies, they can see the two of them as winners. And winners are what they want to see.

According to the New York Times entrance poll, half the Iowa caucus voters were turning out for the first time. New voters are the little grails of political speculation. Dean’s campaign has been arguing that new voters are Dean voters because they are the most alienated. They are said to have been sitting out the political game while waiting for the right knight to ride up and speak truth to power. This is what Ralph Nader said in 2000, when his independent bid for the presidency helped put Bush in the White House. For decades, on the strength of no evidence and plenty of counterevidence, these phantom legions waiting in the wings have been the Left’s romantic hallucination.

It’s at least possible that what happened in Iowa was the beginning of the end of that romance – that instead of the fantasy, we see a considered resolve. Rational resolve would be the bright side of the much-deplored turn to tactical and process considerations, a kind of political calculation (call it sophistication if you approve of it) much in evidence even among some of the focus-group Iowans quoted in a New York Times Magazine article (January 18)[subscrption only] by Matt Bai.

On the day of the caucuses, some critical mass of Iowa voters was thinking beyond either optimal politics or strict self-interest. They were thinking tactics in an emergency. They recognized that the policy differences among the major Democratic candidates are relatively small – relative, of course, to the right-wing, plutocratic, belligerent policies of George Bush’s crowd. To paraphrase Michael Tomasky of The American Prospect writing after the midterm election of 2002, they didn’t want the Democratic party either to turn left or to turn right, they wanted the party to fight – to fight smart.

But George W. Bush also plans to fight smart. Next week, I will look at his state of the union speech – the unofficial launch of his own campaign – as well as the New Hampshire primary.

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