Monday, August 11, 2003

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Why Kevin Phillips is wrong

Kevin Drum links to this Kevin Phillips op-ed from the L.A. Times on how even if Howard Dean doesn't win, he could bring down George W. Bush with him. The key grafs:

The gutsy Dean seems to be emerging as the "anti-Bush" of 2003-04 U.S. politics. He's pumping candor into a presidential race otherwise mired in Washington establishment-speak. This could be the key litmus test — for George W. Bush as well as Dean — because failing presidencies frequently attract such a nemesis, and the wounded incumbent often fails to survive.

Three examples stand out. Independent Ross Perot became the "anti-Bush" who helped defeat the current president's father in 1992. Newt Gingrich, who became House speaker in 1995, was the "anti-Clinton" who temporarily wounded the incumbent in 1994. The most relevant example may be Eugene McCarthy, the tweedy, intellectual U.S. senator from Minnesota who became the "anti-LBJ" of 1968, forcing an earlier deceitful, cowboy- hatted Texas war president, Lyndon B. Johnson, into retirement.

None of the three ever became president, but two of the three, Perot and McCarthy, raised issues and criticisms that helped defeat a president. Dean could follow suit.

Looking at those cases again, I draw a different lesson -- a president is doomed when the attacks come from the base. In Phillips' "most relevant example" McCarthy attacked LBJ, a liberal Democrat, from the left.

The Perot example is misleading -- far more damaging to Bush was Pat Buchanan's primary challenge, which weakened Bush enough to give Buchanan a coveted prime-time slot at the Republican National Convention, which wound up looking like a bad Leni Riefenstahl film.

Gingrich's attacks on Clinton -- as I've said before -- actually sowed the seeds for Clinton's re-election in 1996. Gingrich overreached in believing that the 1995 government shutdown would help Republicans -- instead, Clinton looked like the responsible, sane choice.

George W. Bush will probably not be attacked from the right in 2004 (though see this Matt Bai article in yesterday's NYT Magazine suggesting otherwise). Phillips acknowledges this, but thinks this is a weakness for Bush:

The younger Bush's vulnerability for pandering to the religious right is a lot different — bigger, but tougher to nail — than his father's. In 1992, as the elder Bush's job approval and election prospects plummeted, he had to openly flatter the party's preachers, paying a price with suburban swing voters. President Bush hasn't had to do that since early 2000, when he needed Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and the Bob Jones University crowd to save his bacon against John McCain in the South Carolina GOP primary. What the younger Bush has done instead is to give the religious right so much patronage and critical policy influence — to say nothing of coded biblical references in key speeches — as to have built them into the system.

The degree is little less than stunning. In late 2001, religious right leaders sampled by the press said Bush had replaced Robertson as the leader of the religious right, becoming the first president to hold both positions simultaneously. Next year's Democratic nominee could win if he or she is shrewd enough to force the president to spend the autumn of 2004 in the Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago suburbs defending his stance on creationism, his ties to flaky preachers and the faith healer he's appointed to an advisory board for the Food and Drug Administration.

Is Phillips correct? It's possible, but bear in mind that he's basically echoing the Judis & Teixeira argument in The Emerging Democratic Majority, and not even Judis thinks this argument will hold in 2004!

One other thing: all Bush would have to do is go to Philadelphia, since Bush lost all three of the states, and would only need to win one of them for a comfortable margin of victory. And, given the reasons for Rick Santorum's popularity in Pennsylvania, if I were Karl Rove that's the state I'd want to cherry-pick.

Kevin Phillips has been right before. He came to prominence with the prescient The Emerging Republican Majority.

Bear in mind, however, that his follow-up book, The Politics of Rich and Poor argued that the way to win the 1992 election was by pushing class issues. Bill Clinton won the election by sagely ignoring Phillips' advice. Not surprisingly, this book can be purchased at Amazon for a whopping thirteen cents.

posted by Dan on 08.11.03 at 12:24 PM


Leni Riefenstahl film? The whole Republican convention? I don't think even Buchanan's speech qualifies for that, annoying as it was.

On the question of damage, I think you are half right. It is correct that primary challenges, like that from Buchanan, hurt incumbents. That's just standard Presidential Elections 101. Perot damaged Bush, too, I believe, despite the conventional claim that he hurt both candidates equally. First, he timed his moves in and out of the race in a way that damaged Bush both times. Second, nearly all his attacks--and he is a brilliant salesman--wer against Bush. Finally, though the polling was quite close, the result I saw did show a slight preference for Bush among Perot voters.

posted by: Jim Miller on 08.11.03 at 12:24 PM [permalink]

I'm not sure why it is that Dean will hurt Bush, rather than the incipient Democratic center of mass. It would seem that Dean's pull will, in fact, make it easier for Bush to court the center and cause him to pander a bit less to the religious right.

(Shameless blog plug)I've been doing some thinking, and it is entirely possible that this election is the stage for another party realignment. At any rate, this election, to my mind, is simply a straight-through continuance of the 2000 race. The wars and 9/11 rolled the pre-primary back in to 2001, which is just unprecidented.

posted by: Anticipatory Retaliation on 08.11.03 at 12:24 PM [permalink]

The reason Dean is so popular is not because he is the anti-Bush, but because he is the anti-Gore, i.e., he is the antithesis of the Democratic candidate of 2000. Last time, Democrats got nowhere with a play-it-safe, middle of the road "new" Democrat. This time around people are attracted to an outspoken, in-your-face risk-taker. It's all about balance.

posted by: nancy on 08.11.03 at 12:24 PM [permalink]

The pattern of the "outside the beltway" candidate is well-established, just look at the number of governors to win nominations, rather than Congresscriters. In that sense, Dean is nothing new. However, for the most vocal segments of the Democratic primary - the heart and soul of the invisible primary - outside the beltway means anti-Bush.

You could look at this another way. Gore damn near got the presidency by playing to the center. Bush just happened to be a tiny, tiny, tiny bit better in a particular fashion that netted him some hotly contested electoral votes.

On the other hand, what typically happens to candidates that run away from party moderates in the primaries? Usually, (and I think this will happen here) they can crush in the primaries and then discover themselves with a terribly narrow base in the general election.

In this particular case, Dean (in his, as you put it, anti-Gore manifestation) is simply going to wreck any credibility the Democrats had on defense issues. Barring, of course, some epic disaster that (contrary to every other presidential popularity bubble) doesn't unite folks behind the current man in the Oval Office.

posted by: Anticipatory Retaliation on 08.11.03 at 12:24 PM [permalink]

Kevin Phillips has not absorbed the real electoral implications of 9/11/2001 anymore than the Democraic Party.

We were attacked at home as the opening shot of a war of survival. The American people are rallying around against the foreign enemy.

The Democrats, OTOH, are playing 1990's impeachment vintage partisan politics against President Bush.

It is as if the Republicans of 1942 were saying good things about Hitler and Tojo because they both opposed Roosevelt.

The 2004 election results are going to leave the Democrats dead and damned for their lack of pro-war patriotism.

posted by: Trent Telenko on 08.11.03 at 12:24 PM [permalink]

Let's also not forget the role of Bob "Tax Collector for the Welfare State" Dole's part in undercutting Gringrich during 1995. He chose Clinton's side because he thought it would enhance his chances of becoming president by being "bi-partisan" and reverting to his true self. Hah!

And let's not forget the part that Wallace played in keeping Johnson's VP from becoming his successor by taking a sizeable part of the Dem's "Solid South" and unionized midwest away.

posted by: Raoul Ortega on 08.11.03 at 12:24 PM [permalink]

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