Us and Dem

Mad About You: John Kerry celebrates.Photo: AP Photo

George Bush seems as unbeatable as any unbeatable incumbent has ever been.

While there are lots of people who would like to believe they can passionately will this not to be true, the main premise of this election is a deep fatalism about the inevitability of George Bush. Nothing short of cataclysm would appear to be able to dislodge him. Such a stoic sense of reality makes the primaries—the upset in Iowa last week, the attempt to regain footing in New Hampshire this week—seem something like fantasy baseball and the people out in Iowa and New Hampshire like quaint hobbyists (if not weird cultists).

The preposterous rise of Howard Dean was the initial reaction to the Bush lock—what do we have to lose? Let’s be bold—the backlash against Dean, the second. What have we done here? We’re not just going to be creamed, we’re going to be a laughingstock.

The Dean fantasy has been an extraordinary one. The Vermont doctor has been not so much the antiwar candidate as the anti-South candidate (the subtext of the Confederate-flag fracas was that the Dean team viewed the South as something of a Third World country). Dean represented a repudiation of the Republicans’ southern bias, and of the Democrats’ attempts to pander to that bias (i.e., Bill Clinton). He was a force of demographics (the demographic David of Vermont against the demographic Goliath of Texas) and sensibility. He was as far as you can get this side of the Mason-Dixon Line in the culture wars. And why not, if Bush has it in the bag anyway? If your most sensible and realistic sorts had given up on the race, then the much less sensible and realistic get a fanciful shot. Let’s change the paradigm! (Dean, the candidate of the Internet, has a lot in common with the Internet bubble.)

Pick the moment of the reversal. Mine is when Dr. Judith Steinberg showed up on the front page of the New York Times. You could hear the collective intake of breath. First there was the pure style issue: the untended hair, the thousand-year-old jeans, the stubborn sneakers. The picture said it: hard-core. You just couldn’t transpose her into another setting—and, indeed, during the last-minute panic when campaign officials (apparently on the orders of Tom Harkin’s wife) shanghaied her to Iowa, she looked not just unwilling but terrified. The lack of fluidity here seemed extreme. Comic. Problematic.

And then there was the not unreasonable inference that she was exercising the right of a liberal woman of her station, after 23 years of marriage, not to much like her husband at all. How else could you read the story of his two-year absence from home: running for president was his strategy for surviving his marriage; ignoring him while he did it was hers. The subsequent effort to portray her, in an interview with Diane Sawyer, as something of a rare political innocent, made her seem instead like a media invalid (on top of this being her first television interview, the Deans don’t have cable), as well as a too-fragile bird (certainly too fragile for the rough-and-tumble of popular culture), and added to the sense that the Dean candidacy lacked an acceptable level of socialization, that basic skill sets were missing here, that desperate Democrats had embraced this candidacy knowing almost nothing about this rather odd man.

And so the Kerry surge. It was almost a natural progression. Kerry, too, is a just-say-no-to-the-South candidate. He is a return to a pure order of Democratness. Wealth, liberalism, thick hair, and even military service. A controlled, patrician liberalism as opposed to Dean’s children’s-crusade populism (a classic too, but never, ever, a winning classic). You could send Kerry directly to the party pantheon: Adlai. Averell. Al Gore. And, not least of all, as he campaigned beside that slovenly barkeep, Teddy Kennedy, Kerry resembled, sort of, an unaged Jack Kennedy. From the beginning, Kerry positioned himself as this kind of fantasy Democrat. It is perhaps a measure of the extremism of the Dean fantasy that the Kerry fantasy suddenly seemed reasonable.

And then, progressing beyond Kerry, and back to a certain Realdemographik, there was the in some ways even more stunning catapulting of John Edwards into prime time. His thesis—that the Democrats needed, indeed the best they could hope for, was a reconstructed Southerner—was hard to get around. If you had any hope of swinging the swing states—even acknowledging a general lack of hope—Edwards was suddenly the duh candidate.

The theme of the race—in addition to how deep George Bush has dug himself into the White House—is the sputtering enmity that an element of the Democratic Party has for the president. It’s liar, liar, liar! stuff. Bush has changed the rules of politics in dark ways. The venom the Republican Party showered on Clinton must now, if there is justice, be turned back on Bush. It may not even be the war this antiwar group hates most. It’s Bush himself. He’s the insult.

This virulence has broken the Democratic Party into three almost formal parts, represented by Dean, Kerry, and Edwards (with Clark as the wild card).

In the first group, the Dean core, politics, which has not been an emotional sport for 30 years, has been turned back into a pitched battle. It’s righteous stuff.

But, creating the second group, this end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it tenor, this Bush-as-Antichrist (or, I suppose, pro-Christ) stuff, was finally bound to strain credulity, particularly among Democrats who have weathered quite a few Republican presidents. And in Iowa, fully 68 percent of the voters were over 45. Indeed, if you accept the relative inevitability of George Bush, you begin to make a psychic accommodation (27 percent of Iowa voters were 65 or older—at that age, you don’t want to be sour for another four years) to his reelection. You find a way to root against him without it being so personal. Hence, perhaps, the appeal of the Kerry remoteness. He’s the obvious antidote to the Dean heat.

In the third group, you have Democrats with a finer strategic sense (some of these Democrats aligned with Dean because he seemed to be the certain nominee). These Democrats understand that what happens now is most keenly relevant to what will be happening four years from now. That losing is as important as winning. And that how you lose is part of a larger process. Bush may likely win, but the field of play hardly stays the same. Among the present candidates and operatives, there are certainly those (although not, it seems, Howard Dean and his operatives) thinking beyond this race. No doubt it has crossed one or two candidates’ minds that the worst thing that could happen is actually to win the nomination—if you get trounced by Bush, you’ll have lost your career. And there are, of course, the would-be vice-presidents—you can lose as vice-president and still be left with a leg up. And there is the Hillary wing of the party already planning beyond Bush’s next four years.

This sense of the larger picture makes Iowa and the southern primary races perhaps most profoundly an Edwards story. He’s a comer. He’s the natural. And Kerry and Edwards are an obvious prospective match (it helps that Edwards goes out of his way not to attack anyone too hard). Edwards is surely gaining himself a future.

“Anything to change the story (the bushies, as major control freaks, would find this upsetting) Might upset bush’s march.”

For all practical purposes, the person the Democrats nominate ends up as Walter Mondale or Bob Dole or George McGovern or Barry Goldwater or Adlai Stevenson—which is not nothing. It’s a special political category: the star-crossed candidate up against the popular incumbent. You get to play a particular, albeit limited, historical role. It may take a certain type of person to truly play this part well, and I wonder if at some subconscious point the system doesn’t begin to seek out a worthy and estimable and even interesting loser.

Certainly, Dean seemed to be an expression of that kind of inclination. His was the enthusiasm of the experimental. The McGovern or Goldwater example. Sure he would lose, but grandly, meaningfully.

Kerry is a different kind of loser—less baggage. Less about a losing cause than about a losing style. He’s not a martyr. He may be the Democrats’ Dole. He could lose with grace and without angst. On the other hand (and here’s the rub), it is impossible not to have an upset like the Iowa upset—as entertaining and confounding and game-changing as that—and not begin to think about the possibility of other upsets just as disorienting and profound.

If Dean is toast (or toasted enough) to make this a suddenly and truly open race, not decided until the last moments (Terry McAuliffe and the Democratic Party bureaucrats’ plans to get a front-runner sooner is one of those efforts at corporate and media control that it is nice to see backfire), then the laws of drama alone might lend a new dynamic to the game. Dean’s anger may not have, as promised, brought into “the process” a whole new group of people, but not knowing the outcome surely helps make a bored audience a more attentive one.

If it’s Kerry followed by a suffering Dean and a strongish Clark this week in New Hampshire, with an Edwards win in South Carolina—this is a race.

And then there is Bush. How inevitable is inevitable, really?

His one potential flaw, it seems to me, is that he is depressing. The State of the Union was unyielding Christian dourness. He has set himself up as the medicine to take. The people around him—Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rove—are also scary, no-fun, punishment-oriented guys. Now, it is true that in a time perceived—as the president always portrays it—as bleak and sick and demanding of retribution, his countenance and demeanor are money in the bank.

But, then again, if tone is what it’s about, then if you change the tone, you potentially change the, well, paradigm.

If the Democrats bring enough surprise to the various primaries to upset the expected outcome—to make the world seem like a surprising and giddy place—that represents a tonal change. Anything, it suggests, is possible.

If the Democrats stop being the mirror image of Bush (war/antiwar) and, with some clever diversion or two, propose something new to think about, a different, less depressing way of looking at the world, that might cause the Bush team some confusion.

Anything to disorient them is good.

Anything to change the story, to send it in an unexpected direction (the Bushies, as major control freaks, would find this upsetting), might undermine the march to reelection.

Bush, by force of tone and narrative, has turned himself into a necessary president—for which one must admire the art. But if you broke the spell with an altogether unexpected story line—and I find myself thinking that, after a series of upsets, the Democratic nominee is Edwards—the political world might become, if not quite crazy, at least interesting.

Us and Dem