I’m aware that I’m a fickle linker. Someone catches my fancy, and suddenly everything they write is God’s Own Truth, Brought Down From On High. Or at least I link to them a lot.
Lately I’ve been linking to Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo and Kevin Drum of CalPundit. But now both of them are saying the same thing, and I disagree with them. Both of them are saying they basically think Howard Dean is unelectable in the general election. (Marshall: Okay, have to say it. Drum: Electing Dean.)
Marshall goes on to post an email from John B. Judis of The New Republic, in which Judis writes:
The only thing I’m semi-certain about is Dean’s lack of electability in November. I think it is because I lived through the McGovern campaign, as did some of those ex-Clinton people who have tried to pump up Clark. The similarities grow with every day. Not just the insurgent voter enthusiasm, the new ways of fundraising, and the bevy of flummoxed opponents, but also the economy (artificially stimulated by Nixon through the Fed and by Bush through the dollar just in time for election year) and the war (raging, but bound to quiet some by election time, and to raise prospects of peace).
Now, both Drum and Marshall offer some other (fairly vague) reasons besides the McGovern parallel for Dean’s supposed non-electability, but when you come right down to it, each of them says it’s basically just a gut feeling. And given that it’s more their guts than their heads that are talking, I wonder if it might be mostly the subconscious memory of the McGovern defeat that’s pushing them in that direction.
I was only 10 years old in 1972; the Nixon/McGovern race is the first presidential election I have any memory of at all, and it’s a pretty vague memory. But as I read the history of that campaign, I think those who see another McGovern in Dean are missing the forest for the trees.
Yes, McGovern was an antiwar candidate who swooped in from outside to upset the Democratic machine and take the nomination away from candidates with stronger support within the party, and in that sense he does look a lot like Dean. But there’s a crucial difference between the two.
In 1972, McGovern was perceived as a radical, an ideologue, at least by mainstream voters. In the aftermath of the turbulent 1960s, he scared people in the middle. Sure, they didn’t like the insane bodycount of the Vietnam war and were looking for a way out, but they weren’t willing to put the country in the hands of a moral crusader, the candidate of those campus radicals and drug fiend hippies, in order to get it.
Nixon, on the other hand, was a realist. Though short on details about his exit strategy, he was saying the right things about the war, and winding down US involvement. It wasn’t his war, after all, but his predecessor Lyndon Johnson’s. Nixon had been a moderate steward of the economy. In an era when people were still very thoroughly scared about superpower confrontation, he had opened a dialog with China. And so on.
I believe this was the dominant factor in Nixon’s landslide victory over McGovern. Nixon was the safe choice, the conservative choice (in the general sense, rather than the narrowly political sense). He was the grown-up choice.
But in the looming matchup between Dean and Bush, those roles are going to be precisely reversed. It is Bush who is the scary ideologue, with his go-it-alone pre-emptive wars, overturning of domestic civil liberties, radical re-tooling of the tax code, and exploding budget deficits. Dean is the grown-up, the voice of reason, the candidate of mainstream policies.
Throw away the partisans who will always vote red or blue, regardless of the candidate, and what you have left is a chunk of the country that really doesn’t care about all this ideological crap. They just want someone who seems sensible, and responsible, and who will do a good job. In 1972 they looked at the available choices and chose Nixon. In 2004, using exactly the same criteria, I believe those voters will look at the available choices and choose Dean.
So, it’s my guts versus Marshall’s and Drum’s. Whose guts will turn out to be right?