Ain’t no shame in being electable

Election 2004 | Access/Network
The casting call for the “electable Dean” went out: Wes Clark was drafted, but stumbled; John Kerry stepped up and has two primaries and momentum going into the primary season. And now the attempts have started to chip away at Kerry’s granite image, starting with the notion of whether he is legitimate merely by being electable.

David Brooks, on Wednesday’s All Things Considered with E.J. Dionne, remarked:

“Only 42 percent of people voted for him because they agreed with him on the issues. 46 percent said they voted for him because he’s ‘electable’. What they’re doing when they’re saying when he’s electable is that one group is saying that he has certain qualities that appear to appeal to other groups of people. That’s pretty suspect to go about voting, because people tend to be wrong.”
“Multi-State Primaries Await Democrats”

(PostNote: Brooks’s 1/31 Times wrote about the electability feedback loop, but declined to elaborate on the “people tend to be wrong” articulation. Instead, we got mumbo-jumbo like, “Kerry won the Iowa caucuses, and from that moment on the election turned into a postmodernist literary critic’s idea of heaven.”) Any discussion of the electability of a Democratic candidate must also bring to mind the electability analysis of Republican candidates in years past. Four years ago this week, in between the New Hampshire and South Carolina, William Saletan of Slate took note of the phenomenan of the “Bush Bubble”:

“How did Bush become the front-runner? By raising lots of money. And why did donors give him that money? Because they thought he could win. Maybe they had good reasons to think so. But the point is, the rest of us don’t know what those reasons were. All we know is that they gave him the money. We’re supposed to favor him because people with money favor him.”

A discussion about the “Bush Bubble” soon subsided, replaced by the “Rove Rubble” which buried the campaign of John McCain in South Carolina under a pile of slanderous push-polling, which itself was subsumed by the end of the year when the “Supreme Snub” which brought the election circus to an end. Too bad not enough people were concerned about whether Bush could govern. Maybe, as Brooks figures, “people tend to be wrong.”

I’d suggest that there can be some shame in electability– if the candidate is unapologetically obvious about it. John Edwards’s standard stump speech ends with a soaring promise that he can win all regions of the country– the Northeast, the West, the Midwest, “and, speaking like this, in the South!” Earlier in the campaign Edwards pounced on Dean’s confederate flag flap by asserting that Southerners didn’t want Northerners coming down and talking down to them. But he expects us to think that he’ll get the Southern vote note not for any substantive reason, but on his accent. Not that it helped Al Gore make a dent in the South.

So we’ve got the truly electable guy– a Massachusetts liberal who is at times assailed for being too wonky in his delivery, and at other times too blunt. (Still, as my friend Josh points out, the nation likes Johns from Massachusetts. We’ve had 3 of them for President already).

Postscript, Feb. 6. Michael Kinsley expertly dissects the issue of electability, and compares the GOP process four years ago with the Dems’ today: “only the Democrats are intent on figuring out what other people want. Republicans know what they want.”

Four years ago, in a roughly analogous situation, it was decided that the Republican candidate for president should be the less impressive of the two political sons of the man who had most recently lost them the White House. A far from obvious choice. Decided by whom? If you’re going to be pragmatic, that’s just the kind of question you don’t ask. It was decided, OK? On the issues that divided their party, his views were hard to fathom and stayed that way. He was rich in valuable inexperience. And so, with one voice, millions of Republicans shouted a mighty, “Well, I’m glad that’s settled.”