THANK CARVILLE

John Fund argues that changes in the primary system helped ensure a Dean nomination:

A year ago Democratic leaders were convinced a key to winning the White House was to minimize internal bickering and settle early on a nominee. That candidate could then speak for a united party against President Bush. The party has gotten its wish–a jammed early primary schedule virtually guarantees the Democratic candidate will be known by early March–but party leaders now seem to be having buyer’s remorse. The nominee will be either the mercurial and error-prone Howard Dean or someone who may have a hard time exciting fanatic Dean supporters.

James Carville, the razor-tongued Democratic strategist, was among many party leaders who were certain of a cure for the Democrats’ blues: “We’ve really got to get a presidential nominee,” he said in February. “And the quicker the better.” Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe listened to this siren song and helped engineer a change in the party’s 20-year-old rule that no state other than Iowa and New Hampshire could vote for delegates before March.

Iowa and New Hampshire promptly moved their voting dates to Jan. 19 and Jan. 27, respectively. That meant holiday-distracted voters would have only a few weeks to pay attention to the actual race once the New Year’s bubbly wore off. That meant that for all of 2003, liberal party activists were in the driver’s seat when it came to deciding who would raise the most money and be anointed the front-runner in media coverage. That turned out to be Mr. Dean, who tapped into activist rage over the Bush administration’s war in Iraq and lingering anger over the disputed Florida recount in 2000.

But while “Bush loathing” is almost universal among Democratic partisans, it resonates with only about 20% of the electorate. Many of the people who don’t approve of Mr. Bush’s handling of his job are turned off by bitter attacks against him.

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Democrats find themselves in this fix–either nominating an unelectable candidate or alienating his core supporters–in large part because they endorsed a quick rush to judgment through an early and hurried primary schedule.
There’s no way to be sure that a more leisurely and conventional primary process would have produced a different or more thoughtful result. But it’s safe to say that those who thought a lightning-fast selection of a Democratic nominee would leave their party better positioned against President Bush are having to relearn the law of unintended consequences. One has to ask, who’s the real political blunderer: Mr. Dean, who has brilliantly used the party’s new rules to his advantage, or the party leaders who made it all possible?

A good question.

I think the Democrats would be better off with a Clark or a Gephardt, as they’d be more appealing to moderates, but Dean will at least energize the base. While I find it hard to see how Dean (or any other nominee, frankly) wins absent a huge setback for Bush, Carville’s instinct strikes me as correct. The longer the primaries last, with Democrats bashing one another and providing fodder for Republican ads, the worse off the eventual nominee will be. Indeed, the brutal fight between Bush and McCain in 2000 compared to Gore’s easy defeat over Bradley was almost certainly a factor in Bush’s difficulty the first time around.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Brian says:

    They’ve totally missed the boat on the “minimize internal bickering” plank of the plan. The shorter primary season may keep the quantity down, but in just the past few weeks they have made up for it in spades with the quality of their attacks on Dean. How on earth are any of these “leaders” of their party going to be able to support Dean and keep a straight face come the convention and general election. Heck, I’m not sure he can even pick his running mate from this pool anymore. Clark maybe, but he’s been pretty emphatic in denying that he’d accept the #2 spot, and he’s already got credibility issues.