Saturday, December 06, 2003

Dean, Kerry, and McGovern. I was taken to task yesterday by a reader who thought I was too facile or Kaus-like or something to jump on the latest polls showing that John Kerry is behind Howard Dean in New Hampshire by something like 30 points. Fair enough. The news was familiar, and I didn't exactly add a lot of value by regurgitating the numbers.

Still, it's fascinating to see the hand-wringing going on now over the fact that Dean will -- barring a biblical-scale implosion -- win the Democratic nomination. Eric Alterman argues that Kerry, whom he likes much better than Dean, is also infinitely more electable against George W. Bush. Josh Marshall isn't quite so certain, but also worries that Dean is toast. The emerging wisdom is that it's McGovern all over again.

Well, I worry how Dean is going to fare against Bush, too. And I also think Kerry is the most experienced and best qualified of the Democrats. But, at some level, if Kerry is more electable than Bush, shouldn't he be beating Dean? Frankly, at this point it's easier to construct a scenario that Dick Gephardt or Wesley Clark will somehow emerge to give Dean a scare than to picture how Kerry can recover.

Not to push this too far. After all, if John McCain had somehow managed to defeat Bush in the Republican primaries four years ago, he probably would have beaten Al Gore by five or six points. But McCain, despite his conservative stands on many issues, was in the wrong party in 2000. Dean and Kerry are both real Democrats, and thus there's some reason to think that the one who is able to win the nomination is, by definition, the more electable of the two.

Of the nine Democrats, only three manage to talk like normal people: Wesley Clark, Carol Moseley Braun, and Dean. The rest, most definitely including Kerry, speechify, and it doesn't work in the modern television environment. Dean has managed to combine his plain speaking with a brilliant, Internet-based campaign that's bringing in tons of money. His early opposition to the war in Iraq continues to be his biggest selling point.

As for Kerry, it's not just that he voted for the war, which was a perfectly respectable if wrong-headed stance. (How could he not have figured out by the fall of 2002 that the Bush White House lies so promiscuously?) It's that he has such a hard time explaining it, and that he then turned around and voted against the $87 billion in reconstruction money, which, regardless of where you stand on Iraq, seems to be needed pretty desperately.

And yes, I realize that Dean has had the advantage of not having to vote on anything. But that's why governors get elected president and senators don't.

Ironically, Kerry is more liberal than Dean on the environment, social programs for the poor, Medicare, you name it. For the most part, he probably represents my political values better than Dean does. But Dean's won. As Marshall asks, how can anyone expect that Kerry, having blown a large lead in New Hampshire, will somehow persuade voters there to switch back to him?

Democrats shouldn't worry quite so much about Dean. If he's sharp enough to beat Kerry, Clark, Gephardt, Lieberman, et al., then he might be the best candidate the party can put up against Bush next November.

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