This is democracy at its best. A swarm of candidates, all vying for electoral favor with persuasive ideas and intelligent policy, vetted by a discerning public and a vigorous media corps. Our politics are as stable as our polity itself. This is unlike the parliaments of Europe, where politicians span the entire ideological spectrum. When communists and proto-fascists face off in the same chamber, in the context of parliamentary systems based on fragile coalitions and divided executives, politics is a much surlier affair. No, the name of our game, thankfully, is go for the vital center. Strange, then, that some seem to have forgotten this unforgiving dictum of American politics: Immoderate candidates get punished in elections.
All of which brings me to the Howard Dean phenomenon. Now, Dean is not a bad guy. But he sure talks an angry, populist talk. He’s short on policy, but big on snarl. Not only is he Bush-hater in chief, he takes the time to slur Democrats who believed in ending Hussein’s fascist tyranny as spineless Bush appeasers. He warns that if he isn’t nominated, his supporters might walk away from the process altogether. He made a shocking intimation of a conspiracy theory that claims Bush knew about 9/11 in advanced from the Saudis, not the type of vile smear campaign a potential president ought to make. And he has spurned a career of principled centrism as governor of Vermont. He once was pro-business, budget-busting, welfare-reforming Dean. Now he is re-regulating, anti-trade, antiwar Dean.
Of course, anti-Bush belligerency predates Dean. But Dean’s contribution has been to elevate it from campuses to mainstream America as a presidential contender. His campaign began as collective group therapy for Starbucks liberals, but clearly he has tapped into a larger vein of resentment with the president and his wars, tax cuts and stolen elections. Hot-headedness apparently is a real crowd-pleaser. Coupled with a dazzling primary campaign, his keyed up crowd has answered the call of angry, sleeves rolled-up, people-powered Dean. When he emerged as the front-runner by the end of the summer, the big question became: Can the politics of anger beat Bush?
It’ll be tough. Not only are the Democrats themselves split in a 50-50 country, Dean faces a relatively popular war-president with a well-funded election machine, reservations about his experience and religion, and hopelessness in the South. But regardless of the outcome of the next election, Dean’s legacy of populist oratory will remain. What characterizes the angry left approach embodied in Dean, in the words of Andrew Sullivan, is the “sheer extremism of [his] rhetoric, the personal venom, the decision not just to disagree with Bush’s policies but to demonize them.” This will be a liability later on.
Attacking and attacking some more has been made into an obsessive art by The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, Dean’s journalistic equivalent. His tactic is to locate the origins of Bush policy in hidden iniquitous motives. He might assume, for example, that every policy is prodded into law by big corporate checks – as an aside, we can point out that what bothers left-wing critics of big money in politics isn’t big money in politics; it’s whose money it is. When George Soros says he’s going to spend $15.5 million dollars to oust Bush, expect cheers.
Krugman’s dramatization of the race for the Democratic nomination is then “between those who are willing to question not just the policies but also the honesty and the motives of the people running our country, and those who aren’t.” Why do the Bush-haters insist on denying that people can disagree in good faith? Maybe because it is easier to impugn Bush politics as springing from some fundamental wickedness than acknowledge them as more routine and unexciting party differences. Prophecies of impending disaster and fallen democracy abound these days. But everything will be fine. The real tragedy of radicalizing the political discourse is that it can only lead to ultra-partisanship, declining trust and a general degradation of our civic culture.
Joey Tartakovsky is a Daily Nexus columnist.