Thursday, August 28, 2003

Dumping the Baggage: Clinton's greatest political trick was to run to the center without losing (all of) the left. Howard Dean is beginning to indicate that he will attempt the same feat. TNR's Primary observes that
as this week's Forward notes, a growing raft of single-issue, left-wing groups are taking him to task for some of his more centrist leanings, particularly on Israel, gun control, and medical marijuana. But does this really spell doom for Dean? Not at all. On the contrary, he couldn't ask for a more positive development.

Why? For one thing, Dean has already gotten more mileage out of the far left-wing than he could have reasonably hoped for, having used their early support to cement his image as coming from the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." Now that he's trying to strengthen his centrist bona fides, their support isn't so important.

This is a little true and a little false. Months remain before the primaries actually occur, and Dean does court risk by heading for the center too soon. If he can pull his base to the center with him, he's in good shape -- but he shouldn't hold his breath. TNR notes, further, that
when you get criticism from The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, even the most doubting of centrists have to rethink their assumptions about Dean's supposedly ideological tendencies.
This overstates the awareness of the center, while understating its ambivalence. First, centrists are unlikely to be wholly informed about what the Brady Campaign's platform is. (For the record, it's pretty draconian.) This is not to say that mainstream voters are ignorant; they're simply less likely to be in touch with activists on either side. (They're centrists, remember?) Second, and related, centrists are not necessarily anti-gun-control. If they are as informed on the issue as TNR's piece implies, they are still more likely to be divided on the matter. Dean will have to push the left away with far more visibility for it to matter in a general election

This brings up one final point: the "Sister Souljah" moment. This was Clinton's first real break with the left, and it came with the black left, which continued to support Clinton fully. It was a moment of finesse, pulled off effortlessly. It combined several cultural issues (racial attitudes, violent music lyrics) that were on the "kitchen table" at the time. Dean has to make the same sort of high profile break with the uglier parts of the left, and he hasn't shown any real signs of that yet. (Nor has he shown that he has the finesse to do it well; rather he seems impetuous compared with Clinton's easy modulated air.) His support for troops in Liberia was an attempt to show moderation in his attitude toward military power, but in general Liberia just isn't bright enough on America's radar for him to complete the trick. I think, for reasons of timing and politics, it's too early to head for the center.

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