Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 26, 2003
POLITICS: Mean John
I asked here and here, in handicapping the Democratic presidential candidates, who would be the Mean Candidate. I think Mickey Kaus is right that John Kerry's addition of both Bob Shrum and Chris Lehane to his campaign team gives Kerry exactly the combination of advisers and temperament that produces the Gore-like candidate: mean, divisive, completely incapable of nuance or intellectual honesty, unwilling to concede even the possibility that the opponent and his supporters are anything but an eeeevil conspiracy. A successful candidate has to be tough and unsentimental about cutting the other guy's legs out from under him, to be sure, and this approach has had its successes in congressional and gubernatorial races. But a campaign like this is totally unsuited to attracting the broad middle in a presidential campaign. Why?
1. Presidential candidates have to look, well, presidential. The public knows a rabbit-puncher when they see one, and sometimes appreciates sending such people to Congress ("I'll fight for YOU to get money for OUR state and not send it to those big cities back East!"), but do people who think Bush isn't diplomatic enough really want our leader to be a Manichean populist?
2. The Shrum divide & conquer campaign style requires picking out the fissures in the electorate and living with the consequences of completely alienating everybody on one side of several of them. It's a lot easier to predict the consequences of that and wind up on the right side of the splits when you are dealing with a state or district; applied nationally, there are just too many ways to bet the wrong horse (think of Gore's alienation of gun owners and coal miners), and its logical conclusion is the candidate who wins landslides in culturally liberal precincts on the coasts but winds up getting screwed in the electoral college because he couldn't build a critical mass of support in any state that lacked a large urban African-American population (the one group that, for better or worse, will avoid being splintered by divisions on multiple wedge issues). Sound familiar?
Some time when I've got more time to blog, I intend to look more closely at the related issues of civility, intellectual honesty and mean-spiritedness in politics, media, punditry and blogging. But for now, I'll just say that adding Shrum gives Kerry the inside track at the nomination just as it pushes him further from electability by solidifying precisely the weaknesses that did in Gore. I can almost hear Kerry sighing already . . .