A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Getting Beyond Platitudes

A week or so back, while padding around downtown Columbus, I came upon the John Kerry for President headquarters. It was, as you might expect, empty and forlorn. But still spread across the second story was a storefront wide banner, starting to grunge in the downtown pollution, that read:


It seemed to me emblematic of all that is still wrong with the Democratic Party. Just who are "the rest of us", anyway? Did John Kerry know? Did Tom Daschle? Does Terry McAuliffe? Hillary Clinton? Henry Reid? Nancy Pelosi? The Democratic Leadership Council? Barbara Boxer? Charles Schumer? I certainly don't. Why are we "fighting" for them and who are we fighting? What will we do when we defeat them? I don't know any of this either.

It's about time we all admitted that "fighting for the rest of us" is a meaningless platitude, blazoned on buildings as a substitute for political thought, and as a "strategy" to create an "image" for a candidate so he can be "electable".

We Democrats do not need a new "image". We do not need a new "strategy". We do not need meaningless platitudes. We need a genuine presidential candidate. We need a real man or woman with sane and intelligible views about how to run this country who can communicate them with conviction. And we need those views and ideas to be significantly different from those of the Party in power.

The "strategy", the "image", the meaningless platitudes, actually worked against the man we nominated rather than for him. John Kerry is not a "fighter". He is a moderately successful Senator, in a relatively safe Democratic seat, and very junior to the senior Senator who may well be the most effective Democratic legislator of the last generation, Teddy Kennedy.

This means little more than that Kerry must cooperate successfully with 99 other men and women in the most prestigious committee meeting on the planet. He has really done very little in government on his own, far less than any tin pot one-term Governor of one of our fifty states. We did not feel he could be elected for what he was. We were probably right, but we should have made the best of it and tried anyway. Instead, we set out to make an "image" for him as a strong leader of men in war.

Which he wasn't. He was a decent and successful commander of men, who did the best his men could ask of him--take them into war and bring them back alive. But he was no more distinguished than hundreds of others of his rank who did the same thing--a good sailor and a successful officer in exactly the same sense that he is a successful Senator.

The image crumpled, the strategy backfired, and the platitudes withered in the nasty fighting of a viscous campaign. Leaving us with the man, whose handlers and speechwriters had given him nothing but the image, the strategy, and the platitudes, and left him finally only with himself, burdened by the shadow of that false and overweening image, with nothing intelligible to offer voters who were not already primed to vote for him no matter what. These weren't enough to win the election.

Now you might object that the Republican campaign and candidate were equally platitudinous and strategy driven. If anyone who voted for George W. Bush actually knows what the "ownership society" is, and really thinks we should become one, I have yet to hear of it. But the President, as the incumbent, has one enormous advantage--four years of having actually done things. This cannot be countered by any mere image, and certainly not by an image that is so little tied to the real man that it collapses like an inflated Santa or Snowman in a Christmas Eve windstorm. Actions must be countered by clear, articulate, ideas, and different alternatives. John Kerry didn't have any. From what has been reported about his recent trip to Iraq, he still doesn't.

We did not have that candidate who could speak with conviction and communicate clearly. We did not have those sane and intelligible views. We still don't. The closest we came to it was Howard Dean.

Now I am biased, and you can discount that, if you choose. I signed on with Howard Dean early and am still involved with his political activities, which, in my town, are STILL making meet-ups too big for all of us to fit in one local coffee house. What are we doing? Nothing spectacular. Just trying to elect Democratic state representatives and county commissioners to build the next generation of Democratic ideas, leadership, and candidates--what the Democratic National Committee ought to be doing but isn't, and hasn't for decades.

But I will share with you something I did a year ago, when the Dean candidacy was marching to the Iowa caucus. I looked at the political website of every declared candidate: Dean, Kerry, Lieberman, Gephardt, Edwards, Clark, Kusinich, Moseley-Braun, and Sharpton. They fell into three categories. First there was the fluff: Sharpton, Moseley-Braun, Clark, and Kusinich. Their websites contained little more than a message of, "Gee whiz! Look at Me! I'm a presidential candidate!". The nearest thing to a real policy alternative in any of them was the Kusinich proposal for a Department of Peace!

The websites of Senate and House candidates--Kerry, Lieberman, Gephart, and Edwards--were essentially interchangeable, dense with policy information, but virtually the same policies, clearly cribbed from legislative speeches, written by diligent congressional staffers, and probably never even looked at and signed off on by the candidate himself. And most of these policy alternatives were retreaded tires from as far back as the Carter Administration and the Mondale/Ferraro campaign. You could have placed any candidate picture on any of the websites and it would have made no difference.

Then there was Howard Dean. Unquestionably, Dean's policy ideas were very thin and sketchy in many places, particularly on those issues, such as war and international affairs, where an ex-Governor of Vermont would have limited experience. But they were clearly the ideas of a specific somebody, and somebody who had actually made unilateral policy decisions and acted on them at a state level.

The campaign was originally on such a shoestring that Dean may have even written some of them himself--the prose in places did sound like it. But even if they were ghosted, the writer had clearly spent some time with the Governor discussing what to say, and Dean clearly had made sure to read it and approve it as what he meant to say. They were policies, not platitudes, and he was a definite man with definite personal opinions, and not an image and a strategy.

Let's say that they were the beginnings (though this only) of a clear, new, and fresh set of policy ideas that, with Democratic Party organization behind them, and intelligent experts regularly talking to Dean about them, could have presented a real alternative to the actions of George W. Bush.

This is what we really need, whoever the next Democratic presidential candidate happens to be in 2008. Otherwise we will, as we did in Bill Clinton's campaign, win only by favorable circumstances, if we win at all, and we will be in no position to govern effectively if we do. And without delivering effective government, driven by intelligent policy, we will not keep our victories, even if fate hands them to us.


Blogger The Anchoress said...

Joe, this is the best-reasoned and most intellectually (gut-wrenchingly) honest assessment I have yet read of why the Democrats lost in 2004 and will continue to do so without a movement away from empty campaigns full of fluff and slogans and nothing more. I'm going to link to it.

2:04 PM  
Blogger Edd said...

I linked to your site fron "The Anchoress" and must agree with her comment. Now if you could get my sister in Huron, Ohio to at least agree with you she's a bitter Democrat who sees her right-sided brother as, well, I'll let you fill in the blanks.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Gee, two compliments already from conservative bloggers. Sorry to ruin your reputation so quickly, but I'm conservative and I agree with them. This is a great post.

I don't agree with everything in your analysis, and surely not everything you would support politically, but this was well thought-out, well-written, and worthy of serious discussion in any party.

10:48 PM  
Blogger bagoh20 said...

While I agree with most of this article. I disagree in that:

1) I do know what an "ownership society" means and I do think we should have one, which for the most part we have had.

2) A candidate who has done nothing can beat one who has - Obama proved that definitively.

Still I admire the honest appraisal, even if painful, that you provide.

3:11 PM  
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