Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Dean v. Kerry: Andrew Sullivan has a piece in Time about why he favors Howard Dean over John Kerry as a presidential nominee. I'm repulsed by Howard Dean on a more visceral level than by Kerry. His personality is grating, but are his policies any worse than Kerry's or Edwards'? Sullivan has some good points to make.
Is Dean too extreme? On the critical matter of national security, Dean has a more defensible record than Kerry. He backed the first Gulf War, which Kerry couldn't bring himself to do, and the Afghanistan war. His opposition to the Iraq campaign is less a function of knee-jerk isolationism or even left-wing pacifism than a pragmatic judgment about how to fight best. No, alas, he's no Joe Lieberman in the war on terrorism. But his character suggests far more backbone in foreign affairs than does Kerry's Hamlet-like anguish and spin. I don't see Dean as President caving in to Jacques Chirac. And Dean could also save the Democrats from a left-wing split. In 2000 Al Gore lost in part because of the far-left Ralph Nader challenge. Dean has managed to bring these voters back into the fold ? without making any drastic policy commitments that could come back to haunt him. Kerry in comparison? Gore redux.
I don't think I'd support for president any of the possible nominees, especially if we take Lieberman out of the picture, for the simple reason that each of them regards government action to be the first and best option to address the many public and private troubles in the world. Leaving aside the fact that our supposedly mean spirited, far-right, conservative extremist president acts as if he believes the same, whom would I rather oppose him in a general election, the outspoken, fiery liberal who speaks his mind in a full throated offensive campaign, or a crafty political operative who uses all the right code words to appeal to whatever group he appears before at the time? Tough choice. I'd like to see an honest debate about the issues, with an honest "classical liberal" and an honest "modern liberal" hammering away at each other.

Absent that (and boy are we) politics occurs on the margins, with each side using whatever tactics it must to make small, incremental changes to the current state of affairs. Conservatives can't overhaul the tax code, so they settle for inserting another obscure exemption into an already overly complex rulebook because they'll take a small, actual victory over a grand defeat. For the same reason, liberals settle for another bizarre OSHA regulation because it's preferable to losing a national debate over the nature of capitalism. In order to win these micro-battles over policy, it's necessary to win the battles over politics. I think the current Republican administration plays politics better than it makes policy, but "live by the sword..." is an apt aphorism. Kerry can play that game very well and would pose a real threat. Dean has proven unable to keep the machine of a political campaign operating smoothly, and he'd probably be chewed up by George Bush in an election. He also might offer the opportunity for some open discussion of real issues, if Sullivan's estimate of Dean is accurate, but that's optimistic.

My point (sigh) is that Sullivan may be right that Dean offers the best chance for an honest intellectual debate, but since that probably won't happen anyway, Dean also offers the best chance for one of those small, cynical political victories by the team I think I'm still rooting for. But it gets tougher to tell every day.

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