Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Howard Dean - seems to be winning

In the Democratic primaries, it's getting to look certain that Howard Dean - former governor of Vermont, toast of the Left and supposed "Bloggers' Candidate" - is going to win. Blogs are spilling a lot of ink over him at the moment, but Nathan Newman has some of the best stuff on him here.

"one of Clinton's greatest failings is that he was a Party of One, so he lived and died by the media roller coaster, with little independent mobilization on his behalf out in the population (until impeachment brought some of the left grassroots to life).

As I've said, I believe in organization, and many progressives are operating on the basis of the past when there was no serious organization out in the grassroots to defend their candidate from the Mighty Wurlitzer of rightwing propaganda. Not that the Bush attacks won't be real and sustained, but give me a fanatic organization going door-to-door and community-group-to-community-group to respond over a pleasant personality any day. Clinton needed triangulation because he was playing to the media. With organization, you actually can make the nuanced arguments to appeal to the "unaffiliated" (Karl Rove's term by the way) who are not in the middle, but just conflicted by mixed political commitments.

Who knows if Dean as a personality is "electable"? We'll never know, since we have Dean, the Campaign Organization, which is a far different beast than Democrats are used to dealing with. But I will take Dean the Campaign over any Candidate, however pleasant or media focus-grouped their positions."

Very true. The lesson is a real one - the Clinton/Blair obsession with "triangulating", trying to be a bit of right and a bit of left, a bit of liberal and a bit of nasty simultaneously - is a dangerous burden in the era of polarisation we've plunged into. It was all about mass media appeal to a swing vote in conditions of little ideological confrontation between main parties. Now, though, we are in a period of radical ferment, characterised by such things as the neoconservative phenomenon. They don't recognise anything they disagree with as being a lasting achievement. The rhetoric level on all sides is cranked right up. The French presidential elections last year were a fine example - the centre ground simply shrank away from under Lionel Jospin's feet, moving out to its ideological camps on both sides of him. Jospin seemed untough and lacking in clear values. In the foreseeable future, elections will be won by building out from the centre. We need to consider how to use the polarisation to mobilise our side, to play them at their game.

Newman's point about Clinton being a Party of One gains strength when you compare Tony Blair's position. Just as he modelled so much of his government, his campaigning and style on Clinton, so he became a Party of One. And he has become more so. The Blair party consists of Blair plus his inner-circle team, it appeals to a middle-class middle-England swing vote that is disappearing, and it relies heavily on media appeal. It doesn't have much real support - despite poll numbers only dropping recently, the level of real support for Blair has been minimal for a long time. It's not the same as the Labour party, which becomes more and more obvious - the Blair party perches atop the Brownites, ex-Kinnockites, lefties etc etc. It makes alliances with them but it is not of them. It tries to straddle the socialist/conservative divide, and it is not working - as the Tories move towards polarisation and the Labour party become more and more discontented, the Blair party will be increasingly incoherent.

Random: If you don't think politics is polarising, you should have heard Michael Howard's first question time today. The aggression he and Blair displayed was truly astonishing - there has been nothing like it for years.

Back on the subject, the other main rival for the nomination, General Wesley Clark, ran into some bitter criticism lately. Not from anyone important, but from an academic I know who met him. Our man remarked that he was "very unimpressive - I had the strong feeling he wasn't too bright. This book of his is nothing but a whinge about being sacked. Anyway, he was a Republican back then - he wasn't a very good general either." No. The incident in question being the advance of the Nato 1st Allied Rapid Reaction Corps into Kosovo in 1999. After the move out was delayed due to the US Marines not being ready, the Russians famously dashed from Bosnia to Pristina with a small party of paratroops and occupied the airport. Clark snapped and demanded that his land forces commander, the British General Sir Michael Jackson, now Chief of the General Staff, drop the Parachute Regiment on the airport to shift the intruders. Jacko refused in his own, inimitable, style - "I'm not going to start World War 3 for you, SIR!" is supposedly what he said. Hardly impressive.

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