Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.
1. Performance doesn't matter. Of all the candidates, Senator John Edwards delivered the best stump speech, in which he decried the existence of "two Americas," one for the rich and one for the rest. It was the best formulation of the anti-special interests message adopted by each of the leading candidates, and he delivered it with the skill and grace of a trial attorney out of a Grisham novel. It did little for his campaign in New Hampshire. Former Governor Howard Dean bolstered his message, and in campaign appearances displayed a wealth of knowledge on assorted family matters. That did not help him narrow the gap between himself and Senator John Kerry (which end up at 13 points in New Hampshire). In fact, Kerry was the poorest campaigner of the three. At rallies, he was less inspiring than the competition. He did improve as Election Day neared. But the voters did not respond as reviewers.
2. Screaming is bad. What ifs don't count in politics--or anywhere else. But it seems a reasonable assumption that Dean might have won New Hampshire or come in a much closer second had he not emitted a pirate yell during his Iowa concession speech. Desperate for good news, Dean aides on Election Night were noting that Dean's 26 points in New Hampshire marked a 8 point rise from the low he had hit in the polls after Iowa. In other words, Dean had been moving in the right direction. Certainly, not far enough to write home about. But had he not become a household joke across the country, might he have gained more? Perhaps. But, then again, maybe he only returned to his natural limit. Which raises the question: if he cannot pull more than a quarter of Democratic voters in the state next to his own, how can he do better elsewhere?
3. Not hot enough is better than too hot. Here's a simple summation of the contest: Dean connects too much; Kerry connects too little; and Edwards connects just the right amount--but he looks like he is sixteen-years-old. Intensity can be frightening, and Dean remains Mr. Intensity--or is it Dr. Intensity?--even after his post-Iowa calm-down. Voters seem more willing to overlook Kerry's inability to inspire more than they are willing to put aside questions about Dean's manner. As Iowa showed, only some voters want to be fired up. Many want to be reassured. Dean has been better at inspiring passion than confidence. In New Hampshire, he changed his tone and recrafted his message to address this concern, and he focused much more on his record as a governor who got things done (like health care). But the shriek may still be echoing.
4. Unions can help only so much. In New Hampshire, Dean had the Service Employees International Union, the largest union in the state, on his side, and it did not make a large difference. Andrew Stern, the union's president, told me that the state chapter made sure that 90 percent of its members who had been identified as Dean supporters reached the polls. But since there was a high turnout, their significance was diluted. This is a lesson Democrats need to keep in mind: if turnout is going to be high in November, the union effort will have less impact. Ask Dick Gephardt.
5. Early results are just that. I'm not saying Dean isn't toast. But voters sometimes have buyer's remorse--or voters in later states sometimes aren't keen to second the judgments of voters in early states. In 1992, after Clinton was leading in the race, former California Jerry Brown posted wins in several states. It seemed a Clinton backlash--temporary as it was--had set in. Dean's campaign manager Joe Trippi is thinking a lot about the 1992 race. As he notes, "John Kerry isn't any Bill Clinton, and Howard Dean isn't any Jerry Brown." Well, a guy can hope. But he has a point. The Democratic Party rigged the 2004 schedule to frontload the primaries. But it is possible a Kerry backlash could materialize--that is, if he manages to hold on to his lead as the race enters a more frantic phase with simultaneous primaries across the country. But, please, no talk of Hillary Clinton.
6. In politics, it is easy to get away with plagiarism. Unless you're Senator Joe Biden. His campaign was derailed in 1988 when it was discovered he had lifted a speech line from a British politician. But this year, the candidates readily stole rhetoric from another--with Dean being the victim of most of the theft. His rap against the special interests was lifted by Kerry, Edwards, and retired General Wesley Clark. (Senator Joseph Lieberman, though, wouldn't touch it, and Representative Dennis Kucinich had his own version.) In New Hampshire, it was hard to keep track of who said what about HMOs, insurance companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, energy firms because they all were saying the same thing. And they all assailed Washington lobbyists and proposed similar-sounding measures for reducing the influence of lobbyists. Dean tried on occasion to note that he had been the first in this campaign to crusade against special interests and that the others had jumped aboard the train once they saw the results he had achieved. But Dean did not beat that drum too loudly. This sort of argument is hard to make without sounding bitter and petty.
7. The war in Iraq still does not matter. That was clear in Iowa, where the candidates who had voted for granting Bush the authority to invade Iraq won 81 percent among an electorate that was decidedly opposed to the war. In New Hampshire, Dean slightly de-emphasized his antiwar position. He cited it as evidence of his ability to stand up for principle, even if it is unpopular. He did note that Kerry's vote suggested the senator had poor judgment. But Dean did not make a big issue of that. After all, after Iowa, all the candidates were reluctant to go negative. In his appearances, Kerry often noted that Bill Clinton recently observed that in American politics "strong and wrong" beats "weak and right." Kerry insisted that he would be "strong and right." But given that Democratic voters were generally opposed to the war, it does seem that Clinton was correct: Democrats will vote for Kerry even if they think he was wrong on Iraq because they believe he is the strongest candidate.
8. There's a Northern yearning for a Southerner. The combined votes for Edwards and Clark nearly equaled Dean's total. A key argument made by the supporters for Edwards and Clark was that the Democrats cannot take the White House without a Southerner. Most New Hampshire voters did not agree. But had Clark and Edwards not split the we-need-a-Bubba-friendly-candidate vote, a single tailored-for-the-South candidate might have fared better.
9. Don't enter a presidential race late. Clark is not ready for prime-time. He had New Hampshire mostly to himself for an entire week, as the other candidates battled in Iowa. But he failed to capitalize on that opportunity. His conduct on the campaign trail was less than impressive. He bobbled questions. He spent more time describing why he was a Democrat--after having been attacked for voting for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan--than he did talking about his ideas about domestic issues. Clark was up against candidates who have been running for years. It showed. One reason to get in early is to make your mistakes early and to do so at a time when candidates receive less attention.
10. Voters don't want boldness. The boldest act Kerry engaged in was playing in a charity hockey game with retired Boston Bruins stars. There was a high flop potential. Imagine the news photos had he fallen on the ice. It might not have been as bad as Michael Dukakis in that tank. But it would have been the wrong image. Campaigning in New Hampshire, Kerry generally played it safe, sticking to a script without surprises. It was indeed full of policy ideas and sharp criticisms of the president. But he showed no dash, no daring. He plowed ahead. He won--with perspiration, not inspiration. The question: will Democratic voters be content with a passion-free relationship with a candidate they perceive to be strong and steady. Or might they come to ask, is this all there is?
DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com