Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Temper, Temper: USA Today has a cover story on Howard Dean, picking up the "temperament" thread that came loose in a recent debate. It begins with this paragraph:
Howard Dean's temper is no secret here in his home state. He has called political opponents "boneheads" and said they're "in la-la land." He's told lawmakers that he would like to see them lose their jobs. One longtime adversary wonders whether he's up to tasks that require tact, such as international diplomacy.
Is Dean too much of a hotheat to be president? I don't think so. This is a nice example of "meme" journalism. The "Dean Temper" story has been bouncing in the undercurrents for a while, and his opponents have quietly made it a key talking point. But it comes across as a little bit silly. For one thing, Dean's mouth has been the source of his stellar rise in popularity among the party faithful. Yes, he'll have to modulate for the general election, but for now he's clearly riding a straight-talk wave. For another, Dean's outbursts have been pretty minor. I was among the minority who thought he defended himself well over his Confederate flag comments, and thought he had no reason to apologize. Perhaps it was a gaffe according to the Kinsley definition -- when a politician accidentally speaks the truth -- but the fallout would have been much less if the Democrats didn't insist on sharing the stage with race hustler Al Sharpton, who will call out any statement that even appears to break the Democrats' byzantine racial taboos.

Finally, look at the successful presidents who had trouble restraining their emotional side: Nixon presided over a period of very successful diplomacy, despite a short-fused temperament and a tendency to vehemently denounce his opponents for everything, including bad weather; Clinton was notoriously hotheaded (and foulmouthed) and still managed to project a friendly, if slightly oleaginous, persona; LBJ had almost no ability to self-edit, including on racial issues, but still pressed for the civil rights victories that cemented his legacy; Truman, while president, once publically threatened to break the jaw of a critic who panned his daughter's musical debut.

Dean's competitors, particularly Kerry, want to foster a public perception that Dean is not a fellow we want to trust with "the button." Back to USA Today:

[Presidential scholar Fred] Greenstein predicts that if Dean is the Democratic nominee, Bush will run ads attacking him "on grounds of stability." He even imagines a hypothetical spot in which Dean "sends off the (nuclear) missiles and then says, 'Maybe I should rethink this.' " Greenstein hastily adds: "I'm not saying that's what he would do."
My apologies to Greenstein, but he sounds like a shill. The fact that he says this legitimizes the point, even though the evidence suggests Bush is set to run a high-minded, rhetorically shiny campaign (as incumbents usually do). It's a self-fulfilling prophecy in camouflage: Dean's competition can invoke just this kind of logic to paint Dean as -- if not unfit for the presidency -- an unwise choice to run against Bush. In other words, it's the same thing: If Kerry, for example, strategically raises Greestein's "Bush will attack" point, it's the same damn thing as Kerry making the attack himself, only with the added twist of gutlessness.

I disagree with Howard Dean about pretty much everything, but the gun-to-the-head test tells me I'd vote for him over the midgets who benefit from the propigation of the "temper" line.

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