My fellow Dean supporters,
We are hearing a lot of different "takes" on what the New Hampshire results mean for our campaign - some positive, some negative. Many of us are left wondering who is selling reality and who is hyping false hope or despair. For what it's worth, this is my best attempt to state precisely where we stand and what is ahead.
First, let's state the obvious: Dean is no longer the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. This is both a matter of public perception and a matter of odds. At this point it is safe to say John Kerry is the likely Democratic nominee. He won both Iowa and New Hampshire, a rare political feat for a non-incumbent. Thus, if your only reason for supporting Dean was that you thought he was going to win the nomination, there's a good choice you'll be disappointed by what comes ahead. We are now backing the underdog, which is a less fun job but in many ways more worthy. Ours is a movement of principle, not political expediency.
Still with me? Good. It's now worthwhile to ask, what are the goals of our movement, and have they been met? Here's how I see them (in no particular order), and my thoughts on our progress so far.
WHAT'S COMING NEXT?
- Encourage the Democratic party to be a true opposition party, forceful in standing for our principles and values, and bold in our denunciations of Republican policies. So far, so good. Certainly all the leading Democratic candidates have adopted not only Dean's pointed criticism of Bush's record, but his style of speaking and in many cases his exact language. Unfortunately, there is always a danger that establishment candidates like Kerry will revert to their old tactics of appeasement and "Bush-lite" politicking if left to their own devices. For that reason, our movement must continue even if Dean fails to win the nomination.
- Revolutionize fundraising and Internet-mobilized ("from mousepads to shoeleather") activism. Here we have also made amazing progress. Our campaign has proven the ability of the "net-roots" to find a candidate with an inspiring message and deliver him/her a nationwide grassroots apparatus and fundraising prowess. But beware: the media, the DLC, and the Republican establishment will try to use our defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire to downplay our success. They hope to discourage us from mobilizing for candidates that they haven't fully approved of or vetted. This would be a disastrous mistake for our party's future. Even if our candidate doesn't make it to the White House, there is no reason to discount or discard the important steps we have taken. We must make ourselves available for the benefit of future candidates who share our vision. Our movement is bigger than a single election, and we must continue to grow into a consistent force for progressive Democrats.
- Elect Howard Dean to the Presidency. This is getting tougher, but I believe we must continue to work toward this goal. I'll discuss strategy below.
- Defeat George W. Bush in 2004. With the ascension of Kerry as the frontrunner, this is also getting tougher. The question is, what role does our movement play in making this happen? I'll discuss that as well.
Here's the straight dope: the election is now John Kerry's to lose. Even if we play our cards perfectly from here to the convention, we will only succeed if Kerry falters. I think there is a decent chance this will happen, and I hope it does - I'll discuss why in just a second. But I want to make it clear that at this point - despite what you may have heard from Joe Trippi - Kerry has the momentum, not us. Losing New Hampshire by 13 points does not constitute a "comeback." It allows us to stay in the game. Mind you, that's not what I'm telling the undecided voters I talk to - you've got to put on the smiling face for the public. But between you and me, our current position can best be described as stable. We aren't moving up - yet.
Why aren't we winning? Good question. As best I can tell, it seems Democrats are focused on who can beat Bush, and they've been convinced that Dean can't do it. Remember that the GOP, the media, and the other Democrats have all been saying Dean can't beat Bush, for their own reasons. No matter how big our movement, it's hard to counter such an avalanche of doubt.
Ironically, it seems Kerry's campaign, not ours, was the beneficiary of a "perfect storm." Kerry was stuck in last place while criticism piled on Dean and Gephardt, and escaped unscathed because nobody saw him as a threat. Kerry was like the salad in a cafeteria line - not exciting, probably not even all that healthy, but also non-threatening. Had he done better to begin with, and faced the same scrutiny as Dean and Gephardt, he would likely have come up short. Instead, he timed his ascension perfectly - or more likely, he simply lucked out.
I don't know why Iowans decided Kerry had the best shot at beating Bush. Perhaps if Clark had run there, the doubters would have jumped to him. As for New Hampshire, I suspect that state went for Kerry simply because he won Iowa. Nothing makes one look like a winner more than winning. But now Kerry is the front-runner, and he will face the same scrutiny, if not more. The media only knows two games: boost a man up, and take a man down. We've seen the results of their Kerry-boosting effort, and we are about to see their effort to take Kerry down a notch. In the next week, here's what you'll hear:
- Kerry is a Massachusetts liberal with a record far to the left of the mainstream.
- Kerry is a pompous elitist who doesn't understand the common man.
- Kerry can't win in the south.
- Kerry will say and do anything to become President.
It will be up to Kerry to see how well he can weather this criticism. It will come first from Republicans, then picked up by the national media. If Kerry can successfully counter this message, his momentum will continue and he will win the nomination. But if he struggles, his claim to "electability" will crumble. If that happens, Kerry's voters will go somewhere else.
Where will they go? If I'm right, voters are flocking to Kerry simply because he is winning. If they leave Kerry, they'll jump to another "winner." Thus it is crucial that we rack up some wins on February 3. We must above all else promote the image of Dean as a winner. Our competition for this crown is John Edwards, who has a good shot at winning the closely-watched South Carolina primary. If Edwards wins South Carolina, that helps set him up to be the Kerry Alternative. (After all the disgusting talk of an "Anti-Dean" I refuse to use that formulation.) But we have something that Edwards doesn't: 25%.
25% seems to be our threshold of diehard Dean supporters. By sticking with Dean, we can demonstrate at least 25% support in nearly every state in the union. We'll pick up a steady stream of delegates, and continue to challenge Kerry. If Kerry falls, that kind of support will start to look very enticing. In fact, even if Edwards catches on, he may not have enough delegates built up to pose a threat to Kerry. Dean will.
THE OTHER OPTION
I would be derelict in my promise of straight talk if I didn't mention the other option. That is, accepting Kerry as the nominee and throwing all our support to him now. There is a case to be made that giving Kerry the nomination "early" will keep him unscathed both personally and financially for the general election, and thus more formidable against Bush.
In my opinion, this is a foolish idea, for several reasons. First, the nomination is not ours to give. There are four other candidates challenging Kerry: Edwards, Clark, Lieberman, and Kucinich. At this point only Edwards seems to have a shot, but if Dean left the race the others - Clark, for example - could capture his support. Whatever Dean supporters do, this primary race promises to be a long one, leading perhaps all the way to the convention. Second, even if we could be kingmakers, I doubt many of us would give the nod to Kerry. His style of politics is precisely what we have been fighting against. Most Dean supporters I know prefer Edwards or Clark to Kerry. Third, our movement gives us political leverage. The longer we stay in the race, the more candidates will stay on message: standing up for Democrats, not ceding issues to the GOP. Win or lose, our effort will help the eventual nominee stand up to Bush. Fourth, any talk of giving up is premature. We have not yet seen how Kerry will stand up to media scrutiny. It is in everyone's best interest to make Kerry prove himself.
But most of all, I don't think Kerry can win. Kerry is Bob Dole - unexciting, unthreatening, and unelectable. Mind you, I'm eager to have Kerry prove me wrong. I want nothing more than to defeat Bush this year. And of course, if Kerry gets the nomination, I will work to help him win the election. But until Kerry shows some real spark, I think he is doomed to fail, and not worth abandoning our principles for.
With all this in mind, our strategy becomes clear:
- Stick with Dean. Continue to show your strong support for Dean, continue to volunteer. If you can afford it, continue to donate money. Our stability is our strength.
- Promote Dean's electability, specifically versus Kerry. Dean is a centrist on budgets, the death penalty, gun control, and foreign policy. (Remember, Dean supported the first Iraq war - Kerry did not.) Dean can challenge Bush financially. And Dean can stand up to harsh attacks.
- Win some early states. It doesn't matter which - New Mexico and Delaware seem like good bets. Certainly Wisconsin, Washington, and Michigan are worth fighting for. We need voters to see Dean making some victory speeches.
- Work hard for our 25%. Keep building our delegate count, state by state. Demonstrate our fortitude and dedication to the campaign.
And most importantly:
5)Be ready if Kerry falls. Kerry stole plenty from Dean's campaign this year, but it's worth stealing one thing from Kerry. It's called the Kerry Umbrella, or Kerry Net. The idea is to prepare our forces to "catch" voters who jump off the Kerry bandwagon. Kerry did this very well to our soft votes in Iowa. We must be ready to do the same in California and other states. This means having our voter apparatus in place, continuing to promote meet-ups, keeping Dean visible with bumper stickers, buttons, and face-to-face conversations, and looking confident. If/when voters sour on Kerry, we want them to take a second look at us.
I got into this campaign because I believed in Dean's message. Today that message is just as important, and our work for this campaign is just as valuable. I urge you all to continue your honorable work for the Dean movement.