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There They Go Again
Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times
December 6, 2003

Watching presidential politics lately, I've been thinking back to when I was 13 years old and had my heart broken for the first time.

It was 1972, and I was antiwar and infatuated with Senator George McGovern. But as I handed out McGovern leaflets in Yamhill County, Ore., I was greeted as if I were the Antichrist. Soon afterward, Mr. McGovern was defeated in a landslide.

As Howard Dean will probably be, if the Democrats nominate him.

It is, of course, the Democrats' privilege to stand on principle, embrace the man they admire most and leap off a cliff together. Political parties have a hoary tradition of committing principled suicide, as the G.O.P. did with Barry Goldwater in 1964 and, most masochistically, the Democrats did three times with William Jennings Bryan from 1896 to 1908.

Yet my guess is that the Democratic faithful are being not so much high-minded as muddle-headed. Many Democrats so despise President Bush that they don't appreciate what a strong candidate he will be in November, and they don't grasp how poorly Mr. Dean is likely to fare in battleground states.

Mr. Bush beat Mr. Dean, 52 percent to 41 percent, in a recent Pew poll. Meanwhile, the economy appears to be strengthening in time for the election. Of the 51 economic forecasters surveyed by Blue Chip Economic Indicators, all but one expect the economy to grow more rapidly in 2004 than it has in the last 33 months.

Against the Bush juggernaut, Mr. Dean faces three disadvantages.

First, geography. The only Democrats who have won the popular presidential vote since John Kennedy took office (when the Southern boom started) have all been Southerners: Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Swing states are mostly in the South and Midwest, so the key for both parties is to find a candidate who can seduce "Reagan Democrats," like Ohio steelworkers and Tennessee tobacco farmers. Not another Michael Dukakis.

Second, style. Angry bluster rouses the party faithful, but it frightens centrists. The last two presidents who were fervently hated, Richard Nixon and Mr. Clinton, both won two terms; today's liberal disgust could do the same for Mr. Bush by leading to a nominee like Mr. Dean, who warms the hearts of the party's core but leaves others cold. Furious liberals already bear some responsibility for the situation because enough of them voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 to sink Al Gore.

Moreover, Mr. Dean is smart, but he knows it. America's heartland oozes suspicion of Eastern elitists, and Mr. Dean's cockiness would exacerbate that suspicion. President Clinton oozed charm and was fluent in Southern ("even a blind hog can find an acorn," he'd say scornfully), while Mr. Dean needs a Berlitz course in self-deprecating folksiness.

Mr. Dean's recent remarks about Southern men and Confederate flags showed both his awareness of this problem and his ineptitude in addressing it. He also described the episode as a "huge contretemps," and I seriously doubt that anybody who publicly uses the word "contretemps" can ever be elected president.

You get the feeling that if Mr. Dean and Mr. Bush were stuck together in a small Missouri town, Mr. Dean would lecture farmers about Thomas Paine's writings, while Mr. Bush would have the cafe crowd in stitches by doing impersonations of Mr. Dean.

The third problem is biography. Mr. Dean may be the one Democrat who is even more blue-blooded than Mr. Bush and who has an even lamer excuse for dodging Vietnam. Mr. Dean grew up on Park Avenue in an old aristocratic family, and after getting his medical deferment from the draft, he moved to Aspen to ski. Unlike other politicians, Mr. Dean doesn't even pretend to be particularly religious, and that's a major political weakness in the battleground states.

Don't get me wrong. I agree with Mr. Dean on many issues, and I admire his willingness to oppose our Iraq invasion from the beginning. But shiny-eyed teenagers who distribute leaflets for him in places like Yamhill County are going to get very cold stares and end up heartbroken.

If the Democrats are serious about governing, they should remember the words of one of their nominees, Adlai Stevenson. After one of his typically brilliant campaign speeches, someone shouted out to Stevenson from the crowd that he had the votes of all thinking Americans.

Stevenson shouted back, saying that wasn't enough: "I need a majority!"

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

Posted for educational purposes only

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