Wisconsin Debate Reactions

Dean is done.

It seemed obvious to me that Kerry has grown substantially over the course of the debates — he really does do a much more persuasive job of explaining himself. Edwards was absolutely amazing, in my opinion — he hit several of them right out of the ballpark. He’s the candidate that I can get excited about.

But Dean, well, he just didn’t rise to the occasion. He seemed limp, unexcited about what he was saying. He gave the same answers he’s been giving in debates since December. The only answer of interest was his very first one where he very artfully turned an invitation to beat up on Kerry over special interests into a very strong attack on Bush.

I don’t know if Edwards picks up any support with these kinds of performances. For me, it really does make me optimistic that there is someone running who is inspiring and can grow as a candidate. It does appear to me that he’s stolen a lot from Dean, especially the “I’ll tell you the hard truth” trope, which he used in regard to the question of whether jobs never returning once they’ve gone overseas, and on the question of his portion of personal responsibility for the war due to his vote for it.

Kerry dodged this last rather poorly, in my opinion, in a fashion that made Edwards’ upfront admission refreshing and winning.

Kerry’s got the nomination, I’m sure, and that’s really too bad, given that he’s just not a very good campaigner. But I’m not sure he’s any weaker than Al Gore was (and I was an enthusiastic supporter of Gore). If Edwards becomes his running mate, I truly think it’s a very strong ticket.

But, oh how I regret that Dean flamed out. In retrospect, I think it’s clear he wasn’t all that strong a candidate, though he was saying all the right things. I was never too happy with where he comes down on certain positions (gun control, death penalty), but those differences with my positions seemed to me to enhance his electability, as most voters are well to the right of me on these issues. I hope Dean has a role in the party from here on out.

I hope the Democratic Party has learned its lesson from Dean and his campaign, that timidity and calculation lose you more votes than they win.

Gore Re-Gored During Washington Post’s Goring of Dean

?Huh, you might ask? Well, I’ve been arguing that what happened to Howard Dean is representative of the media’s habit of not reporting objectively, but in being lazy and reporting their interpretation of the story of a candidate, whether the facts support the story or not. Given the way Gore was treated in the 2000 campaign, I’ve come to call this “being Gored.” I didn’t come up with this first, and I’m not sure who did, but the idea was certainly suggested to me by Eric Boehlert’s mid-January assessment in Salon.com of the media treatment of Dean’s “anger problem.” It’s interesting to compare this column about Dean to one Boehlert wrote about Gore just after election day in 2000. Seems to me that what Dean experienced was exactly the same phenomenon.

What is interesting about all of this is what the Washington Post did with the question of Dean’s “gaffes” in a Jan. 23rd editorial. I only heard about this editorial as it was quoted by media whore Tim Russert in his lengthy Feb. 1st interview with Howard Dean on NBC’s Meet the Press. The transcript is available (for the relevant passage, search the transcript for the word “Quayle”), and from it, we find that Russert placed this question, depending on the words of the Washington Post editorial to do the heavy lifting:

MR. RUSSERT: The Washington Post had a very interesting editorial and it tried to put it in context, and let me share it with you and our viewers and talk about it. “Defending the Rant: The speech has caused such big trouble for Mr. Dean because it so graphically evoked already-present worries about the candidate’s temperament. This is a common political phenomenon. Thus, Mr. Quayle’s misspelling of potato was a big deal”–”of underlying doubts doubts about the vice president’s intellect. President George”–Herbert Walker–”Bush’s supposed fascination with a supermarket scanner resonated because of the perception of the president as out of touch with ordinary folk. Likewise, the grief that Vice President”–”Gore took over his alleged boasts to have discovered pollution problems at Love Canal, invented the Internet”–”inspired a character in `Love Story’ was the product of his reputation for self- serving puffery. In each of these cases, the importance of an episode, real or imagined, was inflated because of the pre-existing political condition.”

Do you agree with that?

Where to begin? Dan Quayle’s spelling, George Bush the elder’s supermarket scanner, and Gore’s Internet, Love Story and Love Canal “fabrications” all contrasted with Dean’s “anger.”

They’re all there.

Every last one of them.

Any journalist interested in truth would see that the real conclusion from all of these is that political journalists are incompetent, since every one of these stories except for the Dan Quayle “potato” story is an clear misrepresentation of fact. The Bush scanner incident was created out of whole cloth by the New York Times, and everyone has long known that all three of the Gore stories are false (as well as all the others not mentioned here in this shorthand version of the “Gore is a liar” meme). But the Washington Post editorial board sees each of these little stories as having power only because they are emblematic of certain essential characteristics of each of the candidates involved. But surely, the problem is with these little stories themselves, since they are false (with the exception of the Quayle story), and the real issue is how journalists repeat such false and misrepresented stories. Indeed, it’s not entirely clear that the Washington Post has not mistaken the chicken for the egg, failing to consider that these stories may not be so much emblematic as they are transformative of existing images, that these fabrications have their power not because they are seen as particularly good representations of existing known truths, but because they are such good stories that they completely alter the story by becoming the only stories that get told.

The only valid conclusion from the examples cited in the editorial is that journalists who came up with the Dean anger stories are just as incompetent and untrustworthy as the ones who trafficked in these falsehoods about Gore and Bush senior.

But no, that’s never the lesson that journalists take away from these facts. It’s never their problem, but instead it’s the problem of the candidate.

How can the Howard Dean’s of the world ever succeed in revolutionizing our political system when the media outlets are all staffed by journalists who do not understand that their first responsibility is to truth?

Special Interests, Kerry, Dean and Bush

WNYC radio’s morning talk show, hosted by the superb Brian Lehrer, had as a guest today the author of the book, “The Buying of the President 2004″, Charles Lewis. The book examines the money behind all the Presidential campaigns through the first half of 2003. There’s an update to those figures on PublicIntegrity.org’s website that gives the figures through the end of the 3rd quarter. I did a bit of analysis of the numbers for the top 10 contributors as a percentage of total donations, and using data from OpenSecrets.org for examining PAC contributions as a percentage of total contributions. The results of both comparisons are found here in this little chart:

  PublicIntegrity.org OpenSecrets.org
  Total Raised Top 10 Total % Jan. 31st Total PAC $ PAC %
Bush/Cheney 85,211,717 4,556,870 5.35% 131,774,275 2,071,704 1.57%
Kerry 20,043,633 1,385,707 6.91% 28,209,341 73,784 0.26%
Edwards 14,512,399 2,852,175 19.65% 14,453,092 0 0.00%
Gephardt 13,666,916 2,359,080 17.26% 16,607,735 414,451 2.50%
Dean 25,385,268 235,575 0.93% 41,264,772 22,965 0.06%
Lieberman 11,779,354 762,396 6.47% 13,823,407 211,070 1.53%
Kucinich 3,401,710 408,384 12.01% 6,227,898 16,000 0.26%
Braun 341,669 351,364 102.84% 492,284 30,273 6.15%
Sharpton 283,714 141,900 50.02% 433,142 3,200 0.74%
Clark 3,491,108 45,700 1.31% 13,699,256 37,700 0.28%
TOTALS: 178,117,488 13,099,151 7.35% 266,985,202 2,881,147 1.08%
MEAN: 6,407,278 609,718 9.52% 9,923,329 10,602 0.11%

In regard to special interest money, there is simply no comparison between Kerry and Dean. Dean really does have an argument here, in that his top 10 donors are an order of magnitude smaller in comparison to Kerry. Of course, it’s not really fair to compare the small candidates who haven’t raised much, and Clark’s numbers don’t really mean anything as he hadn’t actually started his campaign during the period covered there.

But between Kerry and Dean, there’s a pretty clear difference.

And between Kerry and Bush, there’s no difference.

That is the point Dean has been making, and it’s a good one.

The right-hand part of the table, from OpenSecrets.org, shows PAC money related to the whole. Overall, in all cases, these are relatively small percentages, but this is because the numbers for individual contributions are not directly comparable. PACs can’t donate more than $5K. Corporations can’t, either. How, then were the previous numbers arrived at? Well, what the PublicIntegrity.org survey does is look at the employers of individual donors, because most companies coordinate donations by their employees to particular candidates. This is how the numbers for the top 10 donors could be so much higher than the numbers for the PACs, because those top 10 numbers represent aggregation of multiple donations from individuals who work for those organizations.

So, it’s important to realize that the numbers for individual contributions, while in the high 90th percentile of the total, actually can hide large contributions from organizations.

Notice that the PAC numbers for Bush/Cheney are only a bit less than 1/3 of the percentage of contributions from the top 10 contributors. That means that PAC money is still a significant amount.

And the story for Dean is still that he is an order of magnitude below Kerry (though Kerry is also an order of magnitude lower than Bush/Cheney). Interestingly, Edwards has reported receiving no PAC money at all (according to his website, he does not accept money from either lobbyists of PACs), but he’s also the viable candidate with the highest percentage of his total contributions coming from his top 10 donors.

The point is that there really are significant differences here, seen within the political system these candidates are working within. One can complain about the political system itself, but I don’t know that it’s fair to condemn all of them for the rules imposed upon them. Given that it’s quite clear that there’s a wide range of approaches to raising money within that political system, the fact that everyone accepts money from so-called special interests does not mean that the special interests control the actions of the candidates to the same degree.

Indeed, there are clearly very large differences between the candidates in exactly how beholden they are to organizations that donate large amounts of money.

And that was Howard Dean’s point about Kerry — he’s vulnerable to charges of the same kind of corruption by money that we see in the Bush administration.

Health Care vs. Insurance

I don’t remember which candidate it was in the New Hampshire debate (Dennis Kucinich?) who pointed out that in the discussion of health care, all the candidates were talking about insurance instead of health care itself, as though the two are synonymous. In the South Carolina debate, this became even more obvious — everyone was talking about providing insurance to everyone, and many talked about controlling the cost of prescription drugs. But no one was talking about the 800-pound gorilla in the room, the insurance companies (and their lobbyists), whose lap dog, Lieberman, was right there on stage. Kucinich made the point that a single-payer plan would take the profit making out of the payment system, which is an indirect way of addressing the problem. But he didn’t draw out the conclusion that part of the profits were going to the insurance companies. The candidates were quite ready to jump on the pharmaceutical companies for taking too much profit and call for government price negotiation, but they didn’t take the further step of applying that principle to the insurance companies.

If you’re going to make health care cheaper so that everyone can afford it, you’ve got to do two things: 1. lower costs and, well, 2. lower costs. Talking about extending insurance programs simply doesn’t address the core problem in the system, uneven distribution because of high costs.

I wish one of the candidates would take this up in a much clearer manner than Kucinich or Sharpton have done.

The Disgraceful Tom Brokaw

I fully expected the media reports on last night’s Greenville, SC, debate to dwell on the disgraceful performance of Tom Brokaw as moderator. The very first question (and about half of them throughout the debate) included a misrepresentation (Dean didn’t fire Trippi, as Brokaw said). Other candidates who were forced to correct Brokaw on questions of fact and implication included Clark, Kucinich and Sharpton. Fortunately, all of the candidates were up to the challenge (though Brokaw mean-spiritedly held Sharpton to a higher standard than he held himself). But so far, other than Mike Malloy’s program last night, I haven’t heard or read a word about it.

The worst of it: what kind of professional journalist would repeatedly refer to the Islamic world as the “Nation of Islam?”

Again, as in the New Hampshire debate, Kerry got softball questions, mostly. But Dean never got any substantive questions at all. I’m rather upset about Dean’s decision to go negative — that more than anything indicates to me that Dean is done. But it was heartening to see the candidates not buckle under to the assumptions behind the skewed questions coming from Brokaw. It’s still an awfully good and interesting field of candidates. Except for Lieberman, of course. And kudos to Edwards for standing up for gay rights in a manner that provided the Republicans with some sound bites that they’ll definitely use against him — not only did he say the right things, he got the nuance. It’s clear to me that it’s an issue where Edwards was not pulling the points off of notecards, but an issue that is basic enough that he doesn’t really have to think about the answer to the question.

The Candidates Followed Dean in the January 4th Debate

OK, I’ve been thinking about the degree to which the Democratic presidential candidates have shaped their positions in reaction to Dean. I remember thinking quite clearly during the Jan. 4th, 2004 debate that this was so. I Googled on a transcript of the debate and found one at CNN. The rest of this post will be an examination of how the other candidates’ responses reflect the way in which Dean’s positions set the terms of the debate on one subject.

Dean’s Position: The capture of Saddam has not made America safer.

In the very first question, which was about the capture of Saddam, Edwards responded:

Well, the truth is that Saddam’s capture and the trial of Saddam Hussein, which the entire world will be able to see when it takes place, is going to reveal the atrocities that he’s been engaged in and some of the incredible conduct that’s occurred in Iraq during the time of his reign.

The reality of protecting the American people is, there’s a still great deal of work to be done. I mean, the president claims that he’s keeping people safe in this country.

He then went on to outline the ways in which the country is vulnerable because the “homeland” (Sieg, Heil!) is not really being protected. The unspoken meaning of his response was: we are not safer at home simply because Saddam has been capture. Edwards didn’t say it as bluntly as Howard Dean, but that was the gist of his answer to the question.

The question in a slightly reworded form was then put to Carol Moseley-Braun, who didn’t mince words, but said about Saddam’s capture “I’ve always maintained it had nothing to do with — or little to do with keeping the American people safe.” She then went on to outline all the things we should have been doing instead (mostly pursuing Al Quaeda). Moseley-Braun was presenting Dean’s argument for why America is not really safer.

Kerry was next asked a different question, but he took the time to point out that Saddam was “way down the list, with respect to the targets, even on the Pentagon’s own list of targets.” This is not an endorsement of Dean’s assessment of the safety of America, but it goes along with Dean’s main point, that it was the wrong war. And this from someone who voted for it.

A few questions later, Isreal is the subject of inquiry for Lieberman, and, because Howard Dean’s positions were controlling the agenda, Lieberman felt obligated to clearly distance himself from Dean’s position before answering the actual question asked of him:

First, let me say that the capture of — overthrow and then capture of Saddam Hussein has made America safer and made the world safer. It has not ended all of our problems or all the threats to our security, but a president has to deal with more than one threat at a time.

Is it just me, or is that an incredibly weak argument? Like Kerry’s remarks above, it still takes Dean’s basic premise, that Saddam’s capture is minor in the bigger picture, while disavowing the blunt admission that it’s is so minor as to not really change anything in regard to the safety of the US itself. All the candidates agree that Saddam’s capture is not all that important in the larger scheme of things — the only question is whether it is insignificant or has no significance whatsoever.

Later, Dean is given the opportunity to close the circle and bring home the bacon, and he does it, when asked about his position that Saddam could have been captured 6 months earlier than he was:

I believe that, had Saddam been captured earlier, we might have been able to spend more time looking for Osama bin Laden, which is the real problem.

Note Senator Lieberman said that we were safer now that Saddam has been caught; I beg to differ. Since Saddam Hussein has been caught — who’s a dreadful person. I’m delighted to see him behind bars, and I hope he gets what he deserves.

But the fact is, since Saddam Hussein has been caught, we’ve lost 23 additional troops; we now have, for the first time, American fighter jets escorting commercial airliners through American airspace.

What we should have done is spent some of the $160 billion that we have in Iraq and all the effort when we went to go after Saddam, who was never an imminent threat to the United States, what we should have done is followed up and tried to get Osama bin Laden and spent that money and all those lives trying to protect America from terrorism, which is the true enemy of the United States.

It gets better and better — the followup question was “What about something that Senator Lieberman also said, and that was that, if we had followed your ideas toward Saddam Hussein, he’d still be in power?” to which Dean answered:

I actually don’t believe that, because I think, given the time that’s elapsed, we could have done the proper thing, which George Bush’s father did, and put together a coalition to go after somebody who was a regional threat but not a threat to the United States.

Our resources belong in fighting al Qaeda. Al Qaeda has got us in a position where we’re now worried because we’re at level orange. We need a concentrated attack on al Qaeda and on Osama bin Laden. Saddam Hussein has been a distraction.

Lieberman is offered a rebuttal and produces the biggest howler of the debate, a horrendously mistaken analogy to Hitler and Stalin (too bad Godwin’s Law can’t be invoked to eject candidates from debates):

I want to respond to Howard Dean’s criticism of my statement that we’re safer with Saddam Hussein gone. You know what? We had good faith differences on the war against Saddam. But I don’t know how anybody could say that we’re not safer with a homicidal maniac, a brutal dictator, an enemy of the United States, a supporter of terrorism, a murderer of hundreds of thousands of his own people in prison instead of in power.

And to change the subject as Howard does and to say that we haven’t obliterated all terrorism with Saddam in prison is a little bit like saying somehow that we weren’t safer after the Second World War after we defeated Nazism and Hitler because Stalin and the communists were still in power.

Now if that isn’t awful, I don’t know what is.

The key point here is that all of the candidates dance around the central point of Dean’s position, that the Iraqi war was a distraction from the real task of going after Al Quaeda, the the Bush administration’s priorities were simply wrong, and have not done anything significant to address the real, crucial problem facing the US in regard to safety from attack at home.

On the subject of NAFTA, Dean also had the middle ground, the position that nearly all of his opponents (except Gephardt, Kucinich and Sharpton, so we’re talking about the candidates who remain viable after Iowa). Dean’s position was that free trade as a principle is a good thing, but that free trade without a truly level playing field for all the nations involved is going to put the US at a disadvantage. Dean wants free trade agreements altered to bring up labor standards in the poorer nations to those of the richer nations. Why? No, it’s not to make us more competitive — it’s in order to improve the working environment for the people in the other countries, because that will bring the greatest good to the greatest number.

This is the position that all the non-protectionist candidates were dancing around. And it addresses the key issue of what the protectionist candidates feel is wrong with NAFTA and the WTO.

So, here we have Dean, the so-called liberal, occupying the centrist position.

On the subject of the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, Dean is again in the center. Even Moseley-Braun, who is pretty reliably liberal, agrees that we can’t just irresponsibly pull out of a nation that would not have been destroyed if we hadn’t unilaterally acted against it. Indeed, Dean’s position is actually more responsible than that of the lawmakers who voted against the $87 billion in funding for the rebuilding of Iraq (the same lawmakers who voted for the war in the first place).

On taxes, Dean has a problem — he calls (like Kucinich) for the rollback of the entire Bush tax cut, including the cuts for the middle class (which were actually there because of Democratic initiatives). His reasoning is not too difficult to understand: looking at the tax code without also evaluating the services the government provides does not give a true picture of the net effect of Bush administration policies on the middle class. Dean argues that when you look at the global picture, Bush’s tax cuts, even the middle class part, have served to vastly increase the overall expenses of middle class taxpayers. Dean’s problem here is that he doesn’t explain it very well — he gets the details but fails to close the deal.

Dean seems to be the only candidate that is looking at the tax cut issue as part of a global issue, of what government can do for the people, and which demographic groups get the most benefit from the government. He would work to restore benefits that the Bush administration has cut to finance its tax cuts for the wealthy. It’s not clear the extent to which the other candidates would do this (though Edwards’ riff on the transfer of the burden of government from capital to labor is basically a restatement of Dean’s core position), but only Dean is talking about it as intimately tied up with the Bush tax policy.

It just seems to me that, over and over again, it’s the Dean positions that animate the discussion and that everyone else’s policies are reactive to his positions, which are almost always squarely in the center of the range of positions staked out. The media pundits rate the horse race and don’t seem to really look at where things stand on the positions, or the degree to which one candidate has energized the entire field.

Dean is Angry Even When He’s Smiling!

ABC’s The Note is about the only media outlet I’ve seen that seems to get that Dean’s shouting on Monday night was done with a huge grin, with excitement, with joy. It occurs to me that if Dean had been a surprise 3rd-place finisher (i.e., he’d been trailing Kerry, Edwards and Gephardt in the polls), this would have been seen as a hugely positive speech.

While I question the wisdom of Dean’s choosing to speak in this fashion to a national audience, if you put it in that different context, the whole myth of “Dean’s anger” shows up as the threadbare, braindead media trope that it truly is. The media should be ashamed — they’ve killed the candidate who is responsible for changing the terms of the debate for all the candidates. If the Democratic nominee wins in November, even if it’s not Dean, it will be Dean who is responsible for having turned all the mainstream candidates from fearful, afraid-of-Bush campaigns into fired-up organizations that understand they have to go after Bush on every single issue.

If Bush is turned out of office, it’s because of Howard Dean.

Another Example of Dean Getting Gored

I had personally been bothered by the incident where Dean attacked a citizen speaker and told him to sit down, but I’d only seen Dean’s angry response — I did not know what he was responding to. Now I know. It turns out the man Dean was responding to was a Republican heckler and that the audience cheered when Dean told him to sit down and shut up. But all we saw on the newscasts was Dean yelling at the guy — both the context (the reason Dean was provoked) and the reaction (the cheering crowd) were omitted. That’s item 1. Item 2 comes from the same story, which points out that Clark did exactly the same thing, but that hasn’t been in the news media.

Can anyone conclude that the media’s treatment of identical situations constitutes fairness in reporting? Can anyone dispute that Dean is not getting a fair shake? Instead, the media fits every incident into the party-line story about the candidate (“Dean is angry”). Since “Clark is angry” is not their version of the Clark story, his anger goes unreported.

And lost in even my own analysis is the question of whether anger is justified or not. Anger is bad in the media shorthand, where they don’t really care about substance, just about appearances.

How can we ever take back our political system when there’s an operator in the middle of every transaction with an agenda who has no accountability or standards, except to promote themselves?

Were Dean’s Young People Just Immature and Unreliable?

Salon has an article criticizing Dean’s “Internet strategy,” and it causes me to wonder if, perhaps, the young demographic of his campaign supporters was his downfall. Maybe young people just aren’t reliable. Maybe the younger folks who went to the Iowa caucuses for the first time were too easily persuaded to change their minds, lacking the confidence of maturity. Or maybe they have that set of ideas about commitments that I’ve seen with younger people in regard to accepting social invitations: “Yes” doesn’t mean “Yes, I will be there” but “Yes, if I don’t come up with something better to do, I might come.” Maybe the Dean “hard numbers” in Iowa were from younger people for whom “Yes, I’ll support Dean and go to the caucus” really meant “Yes, I’ll support Dean and go to the caucus if I don’t have anything better to do.”

Or maybe Dean has just not been doing very well as a candidate in the last couple weeks, as it seems to me. Until the beginning of the year, I was strongly behind Dean, but since then he’s seemed to me to be less articulate, less able to command attention with cogent, well-reasoned answers to the questions put to him.

The Media Whores Just Don’t Get It

William Saletan at Slate.com almost seems to get it in regard to the culpability of the media in ruining good candidates with unfair coverage. In his Iowa Caucus blog he writes:

3. Dean was Gored. Want to know how Al Gore lost the presidency in October 2000? You just saw it: a relentless focus on one candidate’s record and comments. That’s understandable (and I participated in it), because Dean seemed to be on his way to the nomination, just as Gore seemed to be on his way to the presidency in October 2000. You always scrutinize most carefully the person who, barring intervention, is likely to win. The catch is that you’re the intervention. Some of the criticism of Dean was way over the line. (The next pundit who scolds Dean’s wife for not campaigning should have to sleep on the couch for a year.)

If he’d stopped right there, it would have been the indictment that the media deserve. Unfortunately, he draws entirely the wrong moral:

But some of it was well-earned by Dean. Moral: When the camera’s on you, shape up

In other words, it’s not the media’s fault for intervening in the political process, it’s the candidate’s fault for making the mistakes that give the media the opening.

I am reminded of a meeting the officers of the Oberlin College Lesbian and Gay Union had with then-new college president, S. Frederick Starr, in 1984. Among other items on our agenda, we expressed our concern at some recent anti-gay incidents in the Oberlin community (a recent off-campus gay bashing of a student, an effigy burning, complaints about the Gay Union’s annual conference occuring on the same dates as a parents’ weekend) and asked what Starr felt should be done in the future. His response was to say that if we didn’t want public attention we shouldn’t be so visible. In other words, it was our fault when we were attacked, since we made ourselves vulnerable through visibility. And he had nothing to say about the culpability of the attackers.

It was morally bankrupt in 1984, and it’s just as odious 20 years later.