As a political analyst, Paul Krugman is a great economist. He is right that the character of George W. Bush is potentially a winning issue for a Democrat bold and skillful enough to raise it successfully, but he is wrong to see Howard Dean and Wesley Clark as equivalent in their approaches to doing so.
No doubt the people of this country have a right to be angry at GWB. Some of them –but not most– are angry already. The ability to tap into that anger is an asset for a candidate running against him.
Bush’s personal unfavorability rating is now up to 38%, against only 41% favorable (16% undecided, 4% “haven’t heard enough yet” (?!), 1% refused). That’s not too healthy; his unfavorables are about comparable with Dean’s, and ten points higher than Clark’s. And that’s despite mostly kid-gloves treatment by the press and many Democrats.
Bush is vulnerable, all right, and he’s vulnerable on character even more than on policy. But Howard Dean’s angry, “base-mobilizing” approach isn’t the right way to exploit that vulnerability. Character issues are good for mobilizing your base, but I don’t think that’s going to be the Democrats’ problem this year. They’re also good for mobilizing resources, and Dean has used Bush’s character to good advantage that way.
But what character issues can really do in a general election is demobilize the swing voters and weak partisans who would otherwise have voted for the other guy, and capture some of the folks in the center who aren’t strongly moved by issues and want to vote for what they see as the better human being.
And that’s not best done by a candidate who pounds the podium and screams that his opponent is the spawn of Satan. It’s best done by someone who calmly, apparently reluctantly, shares with the voters the facts that show his opponent to be a weasel. George W. Bush showed how it was done in 2000, making the notoriously straight-arrow Al Gore seem somehow untrustworthy by slyly making a big issue out of little discrepancies and repeating ad nauseam the promise to “restore honor and integrity to the White House.”
Any skilled rhetor will tell you that the way to arouse anger in an audience is not to seem angry yourself. That just makes them want to calm you down. You want your audience to be saying to themselves, “This is awful! How can he say that so calmly?” not “What’s he so mad about?”
In my youth, I saw it done by two masters: Eugene McCarthy and Noam Chomsky. Neither of them ever raised his voice or lost his composure. As an orator, Clark isn’t in their league. (I can still hear McCarthy’s beautiful voice solemnly intoning, “In Lyndon Johnson’s world, the day is always the day of battle, and the sun is always at high noon, and the White Horse of Victory looks more and more like the Pale Horse of Death.”)
But Clark is prepared, in his less eloquent manner, to lay out some of George W. Bush’s many character flaws, especially those relevant to his charge of “command negligence.” And he’s prepared to do so without raising his voice or seeming upset.
William Saletan picks up on the another dimension of Dean’s appeal: he fairly oozes andreia, “manliness.” He’s the alpha male in the pack. He acts as if he can’t be pushed around, which he can’t. That is the basic thing voters ask for in a President: they want to be sure, in a dangerous world, that the President of the United States is tough enough to stand up for them. The candidate who more nearly resembles John Wayne usually wins the election.
Saletan is right: to most non-political voters, a “liberal” is someone who won’t stand up for America when the chips are down. JFK and LBJ didn’t have that problem, but ever since Vietnam liberals have been carrying that baggage. Add to that a lack of visible andreia, and you usually have a losing candidate.
Now Dean, if he could strip away his class biases, would find himself very comfortable playing the John Wayne role. But Clark’s southern provenance and demonstrated heroism make him able to play it much better.
And Dean will have a hard time translating his personal andreia into perceived trustworthiness on national security, because he doesn’t combine his opposition to having invaded Iraq with any clear statement of what he would do instead to fight terrorism.
When Clark criticizes Bush for “prancing around” on that carrier deck, he’s asserting what’s clearly true: that Bush has less andreia than Clark has. But he’s also reminding the voters that he actually knows what he’s talking about when he says we should have been hunting Osama bin Laden and smashing al-Qaeda instead of conquering Iraq.
The character issue is best made by someone with whom the voters identify. To many of them, “character” is partly shorthand for cultural compatibility. That city slickers are of poor moral character compared to virtuous rural folks is a convention of long standing.
Clark resembles the typical swing voter, or persuadable Republican voter, far more than Dean does: not in his stances on domestic policy, where he and Dean are virtually indistinguishable, but in his social background. He doesn’t think of Southerners and Midwesterners, or rural folks generically, or working-class folks, as members of strange tribes whose manners and customs he needs to learn if he is to trade his beads for their votes. (See this libertarian’s account of Dean’s performance, and contrast it with the same blogger’s account of Edwards.)
The New Hampshire poll numbers tell the story: Dean is leading Clark among Democrats, Clark among the independents who intend to vote in the Democratic primary.
Those are the voters we need to win in November.
And if you think about it, John Wayne almost never raised his voice. He didn’t have to.
“Liberty Valance is the toughest hombre around …. ‘cept fer me.”
Update A reader protests what he calls the “snarkiness” of my reference to Krugman. Let me be clear: Krugman truly is a great economist, or so my friends in economics tell me. I wouldn’t presume to differ with him on a question of economics, where he is an expert and I am an amateur. And I’m grateful to him for being willing, very early on, to identify the character flaws that make George W. Bush unfit to hold the Presidency. All I meant to say was that he gets no comparable deference on questions of political strategy, and in this case I think he gets it wrong. Iowa showed that anger by itself isn’t a winning strategy, even among Iowa Democrats. I’d have for anyone to extend that lesson from Dean to Clark. Their approaches aren’t the same.