Recent developments in the Democratic primary have been distractions. Keeping our eye on the ball, we should ignore temporary swings in momentum, and instead ask ourselves which candidate, if any, can win?
Dean's unfortunate confederate flag remark only highlights dramatic differences between Republicans and Democrats on race. One encourages race-baiting and the use of code words, the other slaps down their own kind for crossing rhetorical lines, no matter the intent.
And I don't believe that what Dean said betrays any racism. His remark, however, has hurt several ways. His use of a divisive symbol has slowed the momentum of his candidacy (which may be a good thing after all), shifted the emphasis of what he said away from some important truths, and gives cover to Republican race-baiting. It was couched in awkward inside-politics terminology with no message other than "I've identified a demographic I need to go after."
I recently read a letter from a Southern Democrat that pleaded with Dean to "tell us some stories" about poor and working class Southerners: plant closings, hunger, loss of health insurance, etc. If Dean were anything other than a blunderbuss, he would have been there already, instead of issuing finger-wagging wonk-talk directed at the other candidates.
I was interested in Dean as a phenomenon and would have supported his nomination, but it's increasingly clear that however intelligent he is, he shoots from the hip, misses the mark often, and would likely get trounced by Bush. His ideas often get lost in rhetorical blather.
And, this isn't the first time Dean has failed to use "diplomatically correct" language and subsequently had to backtrack. He remarked (and I agreed with him) that we need more balance in mideast policy (e.g. shaft Sharon and work with both the Palestinians and the Israeli left). He retreated under a barrage of criticism for this. Showing some courage and telling people what he really thought would have been one of those make-or-break moves that winners know how to pull off. Instead he played to not lose, which guarantees that he will lose (just ask any football coach). He's playing for the nomination, not the election. Teams that are "just happy to be here" lose the Super Bowl.
I believe that Clark and Kerry would have the best chance against Bush in a fair fight. Clark seems to be spinning his wheels in the mud right now, but he's the most intriguing prospect. He has a great way of looking you in the eye and speaking directly. He's a mensch in a party known for its wimps (hello, Dukakis). His views are down-the-middle Democratic core values. He's whip-smart and has shown he can learn as he goes.
Most telling of all regarding Clark's prospects vs. Bush is the way Republicans are reacting to him. Remember, watch what they do, not what they say. They say, "Oooh, Dean and Gephardt are weally weally scawy." But they send their attack dogs in the punditry after Clark, Goring him by changing his words and trying to portray him as waffling. He's the one they really fear.
Poor Kerry has wandered far off the racecourse. He could find his way back, but he doesn't look like he even knows the way. However, he's got good principles, values, and ideas and he's class, his unfortunate vote for Iraq notwithstanding (he explained it well and I forgive him). He's not rhetorically strong, but he could overcome that. He could win by contrasting his sincerity against Bushian flim-flammery and dissembling and Cheney's behind-the-scenes puppetry and overall bungling. He would have to steal patriotism from Rove.
Of course, if Rove succeeds in sending the entire Iraq thing down the memory hole by election day ("What elephant in the living room? That's preposterous! I don't see an elephant, do you?") and the economy shows at least some improvement and job losses stop ("Hey Greenspan! I need a favor!"), well even the caped crusader would have trouble beating bushWa then.