the January primaries quickly approach, the Anybody-But-Dean
syndrome is becoming as infectious as the flu among rival
Democrat camps. To prevent a Dean victory in Iowa, millions
of dollars worth of attack ads will choke Iowa television
screens and mailboxes this month.
The ABD fear is that if Dean defeats Richard Gephardt in Iowa,
his likely win in New Hampshire will propel him to the nomination
early. But if Dean’s momentum is blocked in Iowa, the ABDs
think they have a chance to undermine him in later primaries.
The stakes are high for peace and justice activists, including
Dennis Kucinich supporters and undecideds, who can tip the
balance in the close competition between Dean and Gephardt
in Iowa. A de facto Iowa coalition between Dean and Kucinich
supporters, even if Kucinich himself stays in the race, would
be a victory for the antiwar movement and grassroots activism
in the Democratic Party.
On the other hand, if Dean is thwarted in Iowa, it will be
a victory for “centrists” based in the party’s Washington,
D.C., power centers, who supported Bush in Iraq. That would
mean demoralization among Dean’s 550,000 signed-up volunteers,
and also open a space for an increasingly probable Ralph Nader
To understand this drama, it is necessary to pause for a crash
course in Iowa’s caucus rules. They are as complicated as
the Bush administration’s blueprint for governing Iraq, but
with one difference: Grassroots Iowa Democrats, unlike Iraqis,
have real power.
On election night, thousands of voters show up at precincts
across the state where they are herded into candidate preference
groups. Each of those precincts is accorded a set number of
convention delegates based on the Democratic vote in the last
statewide election. To be eligible for any delegates, however,
a presidential candidate must reach a threshold line of 15
percent of the participants in a local caucus. If Kucinich,
for example, has less than 15 percent in a given caucus, his
supporters in that caucus room can transfer their support
to another candidate. If Dean is at 25 percent versus Gephardt
at 24 percent in a given caucus, the Kucinich supporters might
determine the winner.
The problem is that Kucinich supporters are likely to oppose
Dean more than other Democrats because they feel pre-empted
and marginalized by his peace candidacy. They complain that
Dean, unlike Kucinich, has not laid out a broader strategy
for global peace. They feel slighted when Dean attacks “inside-the-Beltway
Democrats” without mentioning Kucinich’s early and consistent
leadership against the war. The question is whether they can
transcend this understandable bitterness or will take the
opportunity to inflict payback on Dean.
Dean needs to reach out to the Kucinich campaign, his most
natural allies, without pandering. Dean needs to build bridges
to the supporters of other candidates who will be blasting
him in Iowa. It’s a difficult task in the crossfire, but it
will be a test of how well Dean can unite and expand the party
in the long run.
Who are these ABDs? Do they have a candidate who can win both
the nomination and the November election? Do they think they
can trash Dean and somehow win over his passionate constituency?
A perceptive article by Ryan Lizza in Nov. 29 issue of The
New Republic reduces the Democratic split as “the party
of Dean” versus “the party of Clinton.” This is an oversimplification,
as Lizza himself admits, because it omits unpredictable factors
such as the role of Al Gore or Sen. Ted Kennedy should Sen.
John Kerry lose in the early primaries. But I have heard similar
portrayals of the division by national reporters traveling
with the campaigns. One said, “they [the Clinton people] don’t
want Dean to win because they’ve got nothing there. They want
a candidate who will keep saying good things about the Clintons
to set things up for Hillary. It’s like Nixon, who sat out
1964 to run in 1968.”
Said another source, “They [the Clintons] have a formula for
winning, and it’s not nominating a governor from Vermont,
it’s finding a candidate from the South—the model of Clinton,
Gore and before them Jimmy Carter. So it’s a candidate like
Clark or Edwards.” Sen. Joe Lieberman, darling of the centrist
Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), is left hanging in this
analysis, although former Clinton operatives like Mandy Grunwald
and Mark Penn are embedded in the Lieberman camp.
The most salient ABD claim is that Howard Dean can’t win,
based on a regression analysis of a mountain of computer data
on voter types. The problem with this approach, of course,
is that it couldn’t detect the rise of Dean from insurgent-outsider
to front-runner, or the scale of MoveOn.org or the breadth
of anti-Iraq sentiment in the country. Since the “best and
brightest” consultants were wrong last year in counseling
Democratic presidential candidates to stand with Bush on Iraq,
they might be wrong now in asserting with pseudo-scientific
aplomb that Dean can’t beat Bush.
Computers can predict a model candidate on paper but not the
spirit of that candidate on the trail. They can analyze the
percentage of church-going Christians for Bush but not the
likelihood of a worsening Iraqi quagmire during the 2004 election.
In any event, the early polls show Bush ahead of all the Democratic
contenders by eight to 10 points. So other questions become
pertinent in addition to who can win. Which campaign will
galvanize the greatest energy against the Second Coming of
Bush? Which candidacy will be the most progressive and hard-hitting?
Which would be most likely to win over Nader voters? Which
Democratic Party do Democrats want to build for the future?
Or is this about waiting for Hillary?