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December 16, 2003
Howard Dean: Iraq-Proof?

Hugh Hewitt and Power Line have written interesting posts regarding Howard Dean's tin-eared declaration yesterday that Saddam's capture didn't make America any safer. Despite the objective falsity of the comment -- we have lived with the possibility of Saddam's retaliation for so long, it seemed inevitable until Sunday morning -- it's unlikely to dislodge the vast majority of Dean supporters, nor is it likely to dissuade Democrats from supporting Dean in a general election, if he makes it that far. It's not that Dean himself is Iraq-proof as much as it is that Bush will always be a bigger bogeyman than Saddam or anyone else, in the eyes of the passionate left.

Why should this be? It is a symptom of a polarized electorate; quite simply, more and more people associate with political movements on a tribal basis rather than a rational basis, and this is true on the right as well. We can argue until death when this started and who's at fault, but it's been going on since the 60s, at least. Each side castigates the other as evil incarnate, and while this started out with fringe groups, it has grown into a mainstream phenomenon. Large swaths of the electorate will be unreachable for both Bush and the the eventual Democratic nominee. Only ten to fifteen percent of the vote will actually be in play come November, and maybe less than that. The rest can be safely counted as the true believers.

Nor is this a strictly left-wing issue, and for the best example, let's consider the curious case of Bill Clinton. Clinton generated more heat and outrage than can rationally be explained for a president who governed primarily from the center. True, he had dodged the draft, albeit legally, and true, he hardly behaved in an honorable manner with women both before and after his election. He was spectacularly stupid in handling the Paula Jones lawsuit, which caused him most of his legal problems during his presidency. But legislatively, he toed a centrist line, signing onto welfare reform and balancing the federal budget, two major policy objectives of the right. He dropped the ball on terrorism, but the American public would not have supported a war in the Middle East without 9/11, and as Clinton's adventures in the Balkans proved, the right would not have supported him at all. His performance as President could not explain the irrational conspiracies and crimes associated with him by the right, like Vince Foster's suicide, for example.

You could take this picture and reverse it, and Clinton would come out as George W. Bush. Bush has expanded federal government and pumped billions of dollars into the pet causes of the left (education, AIDS), and they still hate him as much as ever, and as irrationally as the right hates the Clintons. Bush launched a war with more international support (and more American interests involved) than Clinton ever had for Kosovo or Bosnia, but the left is screaming for his blood.

In the end, who does the left hate? Bush, because he is the standard-bearer for the right. Who do they love? Olympia Snowe, Lincoln Chaffee, and Colin Powell, who are seen as standing up to Bush (or trying to do so). Who does the right hate? The Clintons, Gore, and Dean, because they are the standard-bearers for the left. Who does the right love? Lieberman and John Breaux to a degree, but Zell Miller certainly, because they stand up to the left. The Saddams of the world quite frankly take a back seat to this calculation.

This is oversimplified, you might say; there are policy differences that play into this. I would agree, but my point is that to a large part of the electorate, the policy differences no longer matter. It's no longer about rational thought -- it's become tribalism. My tribe, right or left, right or wrong.

So Dean will, I have no doubt, weather the Saddam capture (in the equally tin-eared declaration of his staff) because for Dean supporters, Saddam does not represent the clearest form of evil in the world. That will be enough to get him the nomination. The ten percent sandwiched between the tribes will decide the general election, and in an economy that's growing, where jobs are being created, and tyrannies are falling overseas, George Bush will win that vote in a landslide.

But after that, Americans need to confront the demons in the body politic and determine whether we can continue to operate on the basis of mutual hate, and that will take some introspection on both sides to answer. In the meantime, each side will continue to tear the center to pieces in an irrational attempt to achieve total victory.

Addendum: Not to ping-pong back and forth too much, but the Deacon at Power Line posted a very good response to my post above. I do agree with him that the problem with the radical left, both then and now, is a fundamental dislike of America and American power as created by its mostly capitalist economic engine. This hatred logically informs the hatred of George W, which then isn't really irrational for that segment of the left. What seems to be different is that the hatred is not just coming from the socialist left, but also a good chunk of what used to be considered the loyal opposition. I recall this from the Reagan presidency as well, but more muted because Reagan seemed like such a personable, affable fellow, even to his political opponents. While Clinton approaches Reagan in his ability to communicate and connect on a genuine level -- a talent unfortunately missing in George W, as Hindrocket notes in the previous Power Line post -- it did not shield him from the vitriolic and almost pathological hatred he generated on the right.

Just as a further clarification, though, I thoroughly disliked Clinton as did Deacon and plenty of others who can still build a coherent and rational argument based on policy differences rather than moral clashes. There are a large number of people these days on both sides of the divide who can't seem to do that without relying exclusively on bumper-sticker slogans and almost complete ignorance of the issues involved.

[As an off-topic aside about Reagan, I remember reading a story about an unplanned appearance Reagan and John Lennon made on a Monday Night Football game in the 70s. Don Meredith, I believe, told the story about how the crew and cast were terribly worried when the two ended up in the booth together; one could hardly imagine more polarized political celebrities. But Reagan wound up with his arm around Lennon's shoulder, explaining the finer points of American football to a seemingly engrossed John Lennon. Just a reminder of when it still seemed possible to separate the political from the personal.]

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 16, 2003 2:59 PM

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» NKVD Report from The Politburo Diktat
Captain Ed writes about Comrade Onward Dean being Irak-proof. NTodd speculates on how bourgeois degenerate televsion show "Queer Eye" would cover Comrade Saddam's humiliation (always pronounced a la Arafat, "HOO mill ee ay shun"). Country Pundit goes a... [Read More]

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