Campaign Cliches

Not quite false, not quite true


They're not myths. Not exactly. But they aren't the full truth either. And I'm getting a little tired of hearing them.

Let's start with a perennial complaint: The press is more interested in the horse race than the issues. Maybe it is, but in this election the horse race is an issue. At this point most of the candidates seem to spend less time arguing that they have the right platform than arguing that they can beat Bush. That was, of course, the thrust of most of the attacks on Howard Dean: that his views were too liberal or his persona too volatile to appeal to anyone outside the Democratic base. It also explains the support for General Wesley Clark among people whose politics are well to his left. (Can you imagine what Michael Moore would have said about the general if he'd run in 2000?) And it's not just the candidates and their celebrity pals who keep bringing up electability: Voters themselves tell pollsters it's an important factor (though not the most important factor) when they make their choice. In essence, we're watching voters trying to second-guess other voters. It's like a complex math problem, or maybe a derivatives market.

Can you really blame the media for picking up on this? At the final debate before the New Hampshire primary, reporters posed queries about taxes, social issues, and foreign policy in terms of how the nominee would beat back the Republicans' attacks. And when the questioners didn't bring up the coming race against Bush, the candidates did it for them, addressing the electability question either directly or in thinly-disguised code:

Q: Senator Lieberman, back to what Senator Edwards said earlier about the blank check and the $87 billion [for Iraq]. You voted for it. Is this a blank check? At what point will you say no in the future?

LIEBERMAN: John, it is not a blank check. And I'll say with the withdrawal from this race of our good friend, the great American, Dick Gephardt, I am the only person on this stage who has unwaveringly supported the removal of Saddam Hussein and our troops who are there carrying out that mission, which, yes, has made us a lot safer than we would be with Saddam in power instead of in prison.

I want to tell you a story, John. In Nashua, a few weeks ago, I met a gentleman in a hotel, came over to me, I think he worked there, big burly guy with a crewcut. And he said, "Senator Lieberman, I'm going to vote for you for President, and I want you to know why. I have a son. He is a Marine. He is going to be deployed to Iraq in a month. I trust my son's life with you as commander in chief."

Unstated but implied: No way that guy's gonna vote for any of these peaceniks standing next to me.

Number two: Dean is faltering because he made a strange noise in Iowa. Dean's yelp at the end of his concession speech was funny, so it's no surprise that many people made jokes about it the week afterward. But that shouldn't be any more damaging than the two Bushes' capacity to make ordinary comments sound like something out of Gertrude Stein.

What really hurt the man is not that, after weeks of people saying he's dangerously explosive, he exploded. (It wasn't an angry yelp.) It's that, after weeks of people saying he wasn't electable, he stumbled badly in an election.

Number three: Voters like optimistic candidates, not angry candidates, and that's why Dean isn't doing well. That may have something to do with it, though I've never understood why a candidate couldn't be optimistic and angry. That aside, the fact remains that the candidate of pure optimism, John Edwards, hasn't done much better than Dean has. That could change as the campaign heads south; but at this point, despite his pro-forma protestations, Sunny John seems more likely to be nominated vice-president than president.

More frequently missed is that Dean isn't actually the least optimistic of the major candidates. That honor belongs to Joe Lieberman, whose dour demeanor is matched by his long history as a moral scold. Lieberman's backers say his foreign policy views would be an easier sell to the great mass of undecided voters because there's no danger anyone will doubt his patriotism. But he talks about pop culture the way Dennis Kucinich talks about the Pentagon. And while there's a core of people who respond favorably to this, many others perceive it as a man bashing their chosen pastime, or their right to choose their own pastime—or, worse yet, a man bashing his own society.

To be sure, there are ways to attack Hollywood without seeming elitist, just as there are ways to attack the war without seeming anti-American. One reason so many culture critics talk so incessantly about children is because there's a large middle ground of Americans who don't want to interfere with adult pleasures but are worried about popular entertainment's influence on kids. Bill Clinton knew how to walk this line, in part because everyone knew his own penchant for such pleasures; and so he sagely lectured kids about keeping their flies zipped and pushed V-chips on the nation while leaving his own pants down and finding nice things to say about movies like Fight Club and American Beauty. But that was Clinton. Lieberman is another matter.

Why didn't Lieberman receive the same criticisms Dean did? Partly, of course, because Dean spent so long as the frontrunner, and thus drew more fire. But also, I suspect, because political journalists naturally regard public policy as central and culture as a sideshow, even at times when the reverse is closer to the truth.

Number four: No candidate can beat Bush. This one's more popular among Republican partisans than it is among the mainstream media. The general line of thought is that Kerry, Dean, and Clark are too liberal and anti-war to beat Bush, and that Lieberman and Edwards have lost their shot at the nomination. Well, maybe. But there's one candidate with a very solid chance of beating Bush. His name is George W. Bush.

Four years ago, the person who did the most to defeat Al Gore was Al Gore; the same was arguably true of Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, and Walter Mondale before him. Bush has the added problem of already being in office. Incumbents have obvious advantages, but they also have more opportunities to create disasters. And between the occupations abroad and the constant threat of another major terrorist attack, the chances of a decision proving very disastrous indeed are somewhat higher than usual, no matter who's in office.

The full-time Bush-haters may be a minority, but the class of people who are just wary about the man is pretty big. One large clear-cut public failure, and he can lose their support for good. Everyone's eyes may be on the Democrats, but the ball's in your court, George.