hard heads soft hearts

a scratch pad for half-formed thoughts by a liberal political junkie who's nobody special. ''Hard Heads, Soft Hearts'' is the title of a book by Princeton economist Alan Blinder, and tends to be a favorite motto of neoliberals, especially liberal economists.

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Monday, December 22, 2003
SamAm, you making perfect sense. I still disagree though. It's more an emotional, temperamental inclination than anything rational.

Here's your argument, as I understand it:

1. Dean is outside the mainstream of American religious belief. In particular, he left his church for such a bizarre, trivial reason it signifies a lack of reverence for a mainstream Christian denomination which will not play well with many American voters, and it may make him a butt of jokes and a figure of ridicule even among people who aren't religious, though it may help in the key fanatical cyclist demographic. Also, his chosen denomination, Congregationalist, ordain female and gay ministers, hold yoga classes on their church grounds, and probably have vegan potlucks as well. Worst of all, he's made many impolitic statements about religion, nailing his trousers to the mast in a way that can't be undone.

2. For this and other reasons (civil unions, "metrosexual", "Vermont" is a French word, Park Avenue born) Dean is outside the American cultural mainstream, and combined with his lack of credibility on national security, makes him much less electable than other mainstream candidates. In other words, Dean may have a 15 or 20% chance of winning the Presidency if he gets the nomination compared with 40 or 50 or 60% for the other candidates.

3. Given the assessment that Dean is much less electable than the other serious candidates, one should vote for (say) Wes Clark *even* if you like Dean slightly better on the merits. To vote for Dean when he is almost certain to lose, in the face of Karl Rove howling at the door, licking his chops, can even be criticized as self-indulgent, "narcicissm of small differences"-type behavior, Naderism on a smaller scale.

So one can dispute your argument at three points:

1. Dean is outside the religious and cultural mainstream, in a way that will turn off a lot of potential swing voters, even if we personally don't care about his deviancies, and even share some of them.

2. For this and other reasons, Dean is significantly less electable than other serious candidates.

3. If the differences between the Primary Candidates are small enough, especially in comparison with You-Know-Who, you should vote for the most electable candidate, even if you like someone else slightly more on the merits.

Let's take the last one first. I generally believe in the maxim "Vote your heart in the primary, vote your head in the general". I commented a few posts down that even though I liked Gore the best, I believe he would have been one of the least electable Democratic candidates in 2004. But if he had run, I still would have voted for him, because I liked him best on the merits.

For point two, I'm not sure that's true. All else being equal, I certainly would expect "swing voters" to be more amenable to voting for Clark than for Dean. There are times in discussing national security issues, when Clark seems to me to outshine all the other candidates like Babe Ruth in a Babe Ruth league. And of course his resume and "credibility" are almost too good to be true. But all else is not equal. Dean has so far run a much more competent and appealing campaign than Clark. And Clark running will bring a lot of his military rivals out of the woodwork. After Shelton, Schwartzkopf, et al. (Schwartzkopf in particular a popular, even revered, figure) take their hacks, will the swing voters still be more likely to swing our way? For what it's worth, Armed Liberal reports his (conservative) military friends despise Clark. And just like Zell Miller annoys us much more than a garden variety Republican, annoyed former military colleagues of Clark will perhaps savage him much more fiercely than they would a garden variety Democrat.

Finally the first point. I criticized Dean for his fundamentalist statement because I disagreed with its substance, not because I though it hurt Dean politically (which it probably does). All Dean's other religious and cultural stuff is okay with me personally. Then the question is how much Dean's cultural "alienation" will affect his chances of winning the votes of those *other* people, and what, if anything to do about it.

Damned if I know. I think Rove will make serious mistake if tries to use religion as a weapon of attack, and I think if we go too far down the road too far of trying to do things not because we believe in them, but because we think other voters have to be pandered to in some way, its a dangerous road. The road the Democrats travelled in 2002. Nobody could have been more worried about their precious electability than the Congressional Democrats in 2002 (or in 1994, for that matter), and look where it got them.

Approaching the issue from another angle, what if the candidate you liked best had an inter-racial marriage? Was treated for depression? Was a Jew? A Muslim? A vegan? Would you then vote for someone else in the interests of electability? How far are you willing to let worries about what the neighbors will think push you around?

Less hysterical about it all, suppose Dean wins the nomination, becomes a McGovern-like figure, and we get blown away. Having seen the fruits of all this high minded nonsense about spurning electability, how will I feel?

My first answer is that, ironically enough, I'm voting for Clark, though strictly;) on the merits. But I like Dean almost as much as Clark, maybe more on domestic issues, and I want the ticket to be Clark-Dean or Dean-Clark.

But if I were supporting Dean in the primary, here would be my answer: Before Dean, Americans thought of Democrats as wishy-washy, wimpy, insincere, tell-people-what-they-want to hear political hacks. If you polled people and asked them what the Democratic alternative to Bush was, they wouldn't know. People were so confused about what the Democratic message was that they just wrote off the Democrats as weak and lacking leadership, not people they could respect. Dean may have lost, and lost big, but after this election everyone knows what the Democratic party stands for:

Fiscal responsibility, even if it means higher taxes; affordable health care for all americans; corporations held accountable by government; yes on Iraq war I, Afghanistan; no on the decision go to war in Iraq war II, though support the troops and the nation-building; a firm assertion that the war on terrorism and the war on Iraq were not the same thing; the right for gays and lesbians for life,liberty and the pursuit of happiness; a firm assertion that all Americans, whether cultural liberals or conservatives, need to come together and vote their interests; etc. etc. The worst thing is not to lose an election. The worst thing is to lose an election and have nobody understand what you stood for, as in 2002.

If we are truly right on the merits, and we continue to fight hard for what we believe, as we fought for Dean, then a majority of Americans will come our way.

And then we'll win.