Now that John Kerry seems the likely Democratic candidate, it’s worth considering how the Democrats chose him, so that we can sort out the myths about the major candidates and the factors that have shaped the outcome thus far. The realities are unsettling. Not only have most of the candidates, abetted by the press and television, misrepresented themselves and their records, but much about the process of choosing the next nominee of the Democratic Party has gone seriously wrong, largely owing to mismanagement on the part of the Democratic National Committee and the treatment of the candidates by the press.
The idea behind bunching up the primaries within a few months, the brainchild of Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, was that the Democrats should select a candidate as quickly as possible, giving the nominee more time to raise the enormous amounts of money needed to respond to the heavily funded Republican advertising campaigns that have already begun. But what if the primary voters haven’t had enough time to learn about the candidate they select? What if there could have been a better decision? Even with more time the Democrats have in the past made some weak and even preposterous choices of nominees, as they did with Michael Dukakis in 1988. The nominee could possibly govern us for the next four or eight years. In view of what’s at stake, why should it be so important to complete the process so early—why not take two or three more months?
Under the new, compressed calendar, the nomination battle whooshes from state to state without giving the voters much time to reflect on the candidates and to take account of what has happened in the most recent contest, or contests. Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, has found that Kerry’s Iowa victory gave him an additional twenty to thirty percentage points virtually overnight in New Hampshire and several other states. The pollster John Zogby has said, “This year’s front-loaded primary schedule appears to have worked well in favor of the front-runner—as it apparently was intended to.” In previous nomination fights, a two-week gap occurred between Iowa and New Hampshire (this year there was just one), and that gave the voters some time to distance themselves from the hyperbolic television coverage and consider what they’d heard. Citizens in seven states voted on February 3, requiring a frenetic dash from state to state that left the candidates as dizzy as the voters. This is no way to pick a possible president.
McAuliffe, who is forty-six years old and grew up in St. Louis, has long been a Democratic Party activist and a successful fund-raiser. (He was a strong backer of Dick Gephardt.) He is a tall, friendly man, with many of the affable qualities of the old-fashioned Irish pol. He was virtually Bill Clinton’s only friend in Washington after the Lewinsky affair, and he was the Clintons’ bequest to the Democratic Party. McAuliffe is a lawyer and entrepreneur with a startlingly questionable—for a national party chairman—business past. He’s had some close brushes with the law.1 McAuliffe’s counterpart, the Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, who is forty-one, also a hearty Irish pol, is the shrewder of the two, and an able debater—this is undoubtedly one of the reasons he has his current job. When Gillespie crudely attacks whichever Democratic candidates seem to be popular at the moment, he may be taking orders from Karl Rove, who runs the political show for Bush and is one of the most powerful presidential advisers in modern history.
Gillespie, who is himself aggressive, can tell jokes and has a big, noisy laugh. He was press spokesman for the former House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas, and then worked for a while at the Republican National Committee. After that, he formed a lobbying firm, Quinn-Gillespie, with Jack Quinn, an adviser to Al Gore, and together they acquired a list of blue-chip clients. (It was Quinn who helped win a presidential pardon for the fugitive financier Marc Rich during Clinton’s last hours in office.) “Eddy,” as his friends call Gillespie, went to the Catholic University of America in Washington, worked briefly as an attendant in the Senate parking lot, became rich by lobbying, and was, he has said, the “general strategist” for Elizabeth Dole’s successful campaign for the Senate in 2002.
The foreshortened primary system isn’t McAuliffe’s only blunder. Placing the Democratic Convention in Boston—vulnerable to attack by the Republicans as unrepresentative of the country, the home of lefties and supporters of gay marriage—was another feckless act. (The traffic getting to the recently constructed Fleet Financial Center will be frightful.) It could well be a replay of the raucous 1984 “San Francisco Democrats” Convention, of which the Republicans made a mockery.
Still another McAuliffe blunder was to force the candidates—ten of them at the time—to engage in nearly weekly “debates” last autumn. The results were terrible for the party—ten squabbling candidates in a largely meaningless, time-and-energy-consuming blur. While debates can tell us some important things about the candidates, not least their temperaments as well as the quality of their language, they put pressure on each candidate to put on some sort of act, to show in an impossibly brief time a superior, distinctive personality and command of the issues; the debates therefore gave a strong impression of being fake. And the debates tend to be judged by the press according to showbiz standards: Who can produce the best (usually rehearsed) one-liner; who attacked whom the hardest; who is the most entertaining; who made a gaffe that can be the subject of more stories? Such abilities have little to do with governing.
In fact, according to those who know him, Rove can hardly believe his good fortune in being handed an opposition so blunder-prone. Rove, for his part, isn’t always the genius that he’s often portrayed to be. The President’s political problems are mounting quickly; and Rove too openly wanted and expected Howard Dean to be the Democratic nominee—the man he believed Bush could most easily defeat. But Dean’s collapse didn’t come as a surprise to observers who didn’t get caught up in the Dean frenzy. There was always something missing from Dean’s campaign: a clear view of what is to be done, not only about Iraq but about other national problems.
Dean was much praised for “stirring up” or “capturing” Democrats’ anger at Bush. While his outspokenness was refreshing to many Democrats and people new to politics, however, others found something disturbing about it—as if it were the most important quality that a candidate needed. Moreover, to some it seemed from the outset that Dean’s combative personality was going to be a problem. In the campaign, he could be snappish, responding dismissively to questions from the press and the audience.
In his campaign, Dean distorted both his positions on the Iraq war and the history of his governorship. He had at one point approved of one of the war resolutions before Congress, the one giving Bush authority to go to war if he got prior approval from Congress and the UN—this was also Kerry’s position—and though he presented himself as a liberal, his fiscal and welfare policies tended to be cautious in much the same way Bill Clinton’s were after the Republicans seized control of Congress in 1994. His competitors and the press didn’t pick up on it, but in the debates Dean often showed himself ill-informed on foreign policy, e.g., he frequently proposed to send Arab troops into post-war Iraq. (Any Arab government that did so would be in serious trouble, if not overthrown.) Dean’s attempt to withhold some of his records as governor suggested to some, perhaps unfairly, that there are matters he’d prefer to hide from the press and the public. The reason he gave was that disclosure of all his papers would be unfair to many people who had believed that their letters to him, particularly about personal matters, were private, and he seemed to have a good point.
Dean’s much-publicized campaign organization, managed by the highly admired Joe Trippi, a former organizer for Ted Kennedy and several other Democrats, and a former high-tech entrepreneur, ran into unexpected difficulties. Dean’s ability to raise money began to decline even before the first voting in Iowa; and his union support turned out to be of little help in winning voters. (At least one union later rescinded its endorsement.) The same was true for the endorsements by Al Gore, Bill Bradley, and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin. It was revealing that following press criticisms of Dean’s candidacy and his record as governor toward the end of last year, Dean refused to give interviews to the newspapers.
Coming in third in Iowa on January 19—behind John Kerry and John Edwards, while Dick Gephardt came in fourth and dropped out—was humiliating for Dean, but he was treated most unfairly by the press for his climactic speech that night. The networks and cable outlets were particularly unfair in replaying his speech hundreds of times without the very loud audience noise that forced him to raise his voice. In any case, as he explained later, he was appearing before mostly young people who had come to Iowa to help him, and he was trying to boost their spirits. Dean was a good sport about the overreaction to this event: he was able to joke about it, and even make fun of himself on David Letterman’s Late Show.
Moreover, when Dean returned to New Hampshire a defeated candidate, he handled himself with considerable grace, and was at his most likable. His wife, Dr. Judith Steinberg, who had been criticized for not participating in the campaign, joined him in New Hampshire and turned out to be a great help to him. Dr. Steinberg was refreshing—not the usual dutiful, adoring wife, she candidly and charmingly said that she didn’t know anything about how to run a campaign and was staying out of this one. She showed Dean to be a man who respects his wife’s right to continue her successful medical practice. When, on January 27, Dean came in a distant second in New Hampshire—with 26.4 percent to John Kerry’s 38.4 percent—he was again gracious, as opposed to the testy Dean we saw in the debate in South Carolina later that week. On election night in New Hampshire Dean was more positive and forward-looking than he’d been throughout much of the campaign, eloquently listing many of the things he hoped for—that “kids will grow up to go to college instead of prison,” that “we will find a solution to global warming.”
By then Dean was virtually out of money and replaced Trippi with Roy Neel, a much-liked man who was Gore’s chief of staff and then chief executive of the US Telephone Association. As in the case of his endorsements, so much for the “outsider” candidacy. Dean spent little money in the states that voted on February 3, and came out no better than third in any of them, and trailed badly in Michigan on February 7.
In a deal between McAuliffe and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers pension fund to buy a block of Florida real estate, McAuliffe put up $100 and the pension fund put up $39 million; yet McAuliffe was given a 50 percent interest in the project, and earned $2.45 million from it. Presumably, what the pension got from the deal was McAuliffe's presumed influence with Washington politicians.↩
In a deal between McAuliffe and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers pension fund to buy a block of Florida real estate, McAuliffe put up $100 and the pension fund put up $39 million; yet McAuliffe was given a 50 percent interest in the project, and earned $2.45 million from it. Presumably, what the pension got from the deal was McAuliffe’s presumed influence with Washington politicians.↩