Dean and Kucinich: Who is More “Electable”
Some progressives, like Campbell Roark (the South Carolinian French lit fan we met earlier in this series), have already resigned themselves to a second Bush term. Roark’s favorite candidates in the Democratic primary are Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean, but he doesn’t think they could mount much of a challenge to Bush because—they’re too white. “Outside of radicalizing the minorities and getting them into the voting booths—and I don’t think that’ll happen—I don’t see anything of major change happening in this country in the next election,” Roark said. Does he think any candidates are capable of radicalizing minorities? “While at the same time retaining a solid middle-class white base? Al Sharpton perhaps, Carol Braun perhaps, but they don’t have white appeal. Race is still a factor, you can’t deny that it’s not.”
That flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which says that ultra-white candidates like Joe Lieberman and Bob Graham are “electable” while Kucinich and Dean are not because the latter two are too “liberal.” But since Dean’s progressive credentials are more questionable than Kucinich’s, he is taken more seriously by the press corps. Talking heads assure us that if Howard Dean doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell to become President, Dennis Kucinich doesn’t have a snowflake’s chance.
Punditry prejudice aside, perhaps Dean and Kucinich’s biggest liability is that neither is telegenic (though none of the other Democratic candidates, with the exception of Carol Moseley Braun, is either.) For the record, matters of personal hygiene, appearance, and demeanor should not make a difference in an election, but of course they always do. Like it or not, most people choose their presidents the way they choose their lovers: i.e., based, more or less, on superficial “impressions.”
Dean is a savvy candidate, but his public persona can be off-putting. An unidentified comment on a Matthew Yglesias’ political website hit the nail on the head: “Dean’s electability problems far outweigh his electability assets. And it’s not a matter of height or ideology. The problem is his TV personality. He plays bad on TV. His smile is twisted and a bit creepy. His stridency is too hot. He seems smug.”
In other words, he comes across on TV as a stiffer, meaner Gore. At one point during the South Carolina debate, Dean’s plastic smile looked so ridiculous that all the journalists in the Media Center burst into gales of laughter. Jon Stewart parodied the moment brilliantly on the Daily Show, when he showed clips of Howard Dean and John Kerry going head to head in a “creepy smile-off.” (Dean won, of course.) Also, the media have made much of Dean’s supposedly weak performance on Meet the Press (though from where we were sitting, Russert, with his purposeless hairsplitting, came off worse than Dean).
Nonetheless, if Dean’s momentum keeps building at its current rate, he could win the primary. It’s in the general election that his “electability” comes into question. No candidate has ever won the presidency without carrying at least one Southern state. Al Gore, a Tennessean, didn’t win any Southern states (Florida excepted). “I intend to win plenty of states in the South, and I’m going to campaign extensively down there,” Dean told us. “The fact is, black and white Southerners alike want healthcare and good schools for their children, prescription drugs for their parents, and a clean environment to raise their families in. I am going to point out the truth, which is that Southerners have been voting for Republicans for over 30 years, and they have nothing to show for it.”
Fine, but it is difficult to imagine very many people in the South “wanting to have a beer,” as the election cliché goes, with a New England “liberal” who can out-Gore Gore and helped create the nation’s first civil union statute for gays. But Dean has a more substantive problem: the issues he singled out for wooing Southerners—healthcare, good schools, prescription drugs, and the environment—are the same ones Gore ran on. Even Bush, from his own rightward angle, sounds these same themes. Unless something drastic happens, such as Bush getting caught with an intern, or Dean getting a personality transplant, it is unthinkable that the South as a region will come to trust Howard Dean more than they do George W. Bush.
What’s needed is a candidate who can challenge Bush on different turf, such as, say, trade (i.e., jobs), civil liberties (i.e., “government out”), ending corporate subsidies (i.e., no more welfare for rich people), and national healthcare (i.e., peace of mind and freedom from paying scam artists to deny care). Bush is vulnerable on all these things, and Kucinich is the first Democrat in a while who would actually have the “sack” (as Jon Stewart would say) to buck the Washington consensus and challenge him on each of those fronts. Kucinich could make Bush sweat in a general election in ways Dean could not.
Then there is the Nader factor, which only Kucinich would benefit from in a general election. Kucinich is the only Democrat who would have Nader’s endorsement and the Green votes that come with it and who needn’t fear a major third party challenge. Nader has hinted strongly that every other Democrat is fair game. Plus, Kucinich’s agriculture policies would endear him to the heartland, just as his stance on trade would be sure to pick up a Southern state or two. East and West Coast liberals would come on board because they would consider any Democratic nominee Not Bush, which would be good enough for them.
The fly in the ointment? There are several, but Kucinich’s main electability problem is exactly the opposite of Dean’s. It’s easy to imagine Kucinich being competitive in the general election, but he probably doesn’t have a prayer in the primary. Dean is hogging the progressive vote, and Kerry, Edwards, Dean, Gephardt, and Lieberman are hogging the money, which leaves Kucinich with very little of nothing. 2004 probably won’t be his year—unless he overcomes overwhelming odds and somehow manages to win MoveOn.org’s pre-primary run-off, its endorsement, and its PAC money this fall.
In terms of personality, Kucinich has a salt-of-the-earth quality Dean does not, but otherwise he is even more stylistically challenged. He has a slight frame, a bad black dye job that looks about fifty years younger than the creviced head it sits on, a brash style, and a honking Cleveland dialect that may cause people to dismiss him as “unpresidential.” His speeches are electric, but in debate he’s often hot when he should be cold and cold when he should be hot. In the South Carolina debate he nagged and brayed a lot when a cooler-headed approach would have been more appropriate. Yet just before the war in Iraq, in a point/counterpoint with Richard Perle on Meet the Press, Perle called Kucinich a liar to his face—and he took it meekly.
Now, if there is anyone in public life from whom it should be easy to seize the moral high ground, it’s Richard Perle, with his alleged war profiteering, his documented conflicts of interests, and his years-old proposal for invading and propping up new governments in the Arab world as a way of avoiding Middle East peace concessions. Clearly, this was the time to be an attack dog, yet Kucinich seemed almost apologetic about being there.
What’s more, Kucinich isn’t always mindful enough of his audience when he floats some of his more controversial proposals. In the South Carolina debate, during his first turn speaking he railed, “Somebody here has to cut the waste, the fat, the bloat out of the military. I’m the only candidate who’s ready to say that there’s been misspending in the Pentagon, that there’s been a lot of money wasted.” Kucinich and his team were glowing about that line after the debate. But, as we told Jeff Cohen (Kucinich's campaign manager), if you wage a full frontal rhetorical attack on the military budget without explaining what you mean, the first thing people in Middle America are going to think is that you want to cut the number of men in uniform, maybe even their pay. Cohen protested that Kucinich wants to increase that.
But Middle America won’t know that unless Kucinich tells them. If he has a chance in this race, he has to be very precise about how he lays out a progressive agenda to a largely reactionary audience. Not many people would have a problem with giving less money to defense contractors and more money to soldiers. But taking vague and random rhetorical chainsaws to institutions most Americans are fond of could sink his candidacy for good. Maybe it’s a good thing nobody saw that debate (which ABC banished to the C-SPAN ghetto) after all.
This is not quibbling. Kucinich simply can’t afford to make these kinds of mistakes if he’s serious about winning. His support base doesn’t have enough of a cushion, and time, money, and the media are all against him. It remains to be seen whether he can muster the style, savvy, and strategic rigor to compensate for all the ways the deck is stacked against him.
Beyond electability, the choice between Dean and Kucinich could not be clearer for progressives. Dean would implement a program of modest reforms. Kucinich wants to change the very nature of politics itself. It all comes down to this question: What does our country need? Political reform or political revolution?
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This story was published on June 26, 2003.
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