Monday, March 01, 2004

What I plan to do tomorrow

It's less than 8 hours before the polls open here in New York, so it's well past time for me to have decided who to vote for in the Democratic primary, John Kerry or John Edwards.

Let me begin with the proposition that policy-wise, I don't see a great deal of difference between them -- and that's certainly been part of Edwards' problem in the debates, as he tries to draw a distinction without (and admirably so) attacking Kerry. As I've written before, I can support either of these guys without qualms, so, like many Democrats, I'm primarily concerned that the party's nominee be as strong as possible in order to ensure that Bush will be defeated.

I've posted on several occasions some of my concerns about Kerry's potential weaknesses as a candidate, but I haven't yet done as much for Edwards. Ironically, considering their policy similarities, these two guys are pretty much yin and yang. Young/old, handsome/odd-looking, charismatic/boring, inexperienced/too experienced, lower-class roots/upper-classs roots, Southern/Northern and so on. Pretty much all the things that present affordances for negative campaigning against Kerry go the opposite way with Edwards, but so much so that they, too, provide handles for Rove to latch onto.

Take Edwards' obvious natural gifts as a politician, his charisma, his Southern (but not too Southern) presentation, his clear feel for retail politics and getting into a crowd, his good looks, with a wife who's intelligent and his primary advisor -- remind you of anyone? Given the Clinton-hatred that still permeates Bush's base of support, I think we will see Rove bringing up the comparison as often as possible without actually bringing up Clinton's name, which might serve to emergize the Democrats (many of whom wish that Clinton could have served a third term). Insinuating that Edwards is the second coming of the detested Bill could be good for some percentage points in just the states that the Democrats in general, but not Edwards specifically, would normally be expected to do well in.

Then there's Edwards' inexperience. It would be the height of chutzpah for Rove to play on Edwards' inexperience, given the fact that his client, George W. Bush, was just as inexperienced when he assumed the Presidency -- but that's precisely the reason I would expect the issue to be raised. Consider this: how does Edwards' defend against such a charge? If he points out that Bush was just as inexperienced, he's giving Bush the edge because now Bush has almost four years of hand-on experience. He can argue (as he should) that Bush has done a lousy job in those years, but that only raises the spector that electing another inexperienced man to the Oval Office may have the same result. About the best Edwards can do is to use the kind of line he used in the recent debate here in New York: "It's not the length of your resume, but the strength of your vision." It's a good line, and should help deflect the issue for many people, but it won't undo the problem that such insinuations may move leaners away from Edwards.

What else are negatives about Edwards? That's he's a trial attorney -- that's certainly something that will be used against him, considering the low esteem the public holds that profession in. His lack of any real national security gravitas (sorry, but there's really no other easy way to express that thought) is simply a special case of his inexperience. Maybe there's more, but I can't think of any right now.

So, looking at the balance sheet for these two men, their strengths and weaknesses, the opportunities their personalities and careers provide for attacks and dirty tricks, they seem fairly evenly balanced to me -- the yin and the yang add up to the unbroken circle. And that leads to the argument that Publius makes that Kerry/Edwards is the ideal ticket to put up against Bush, and I agree.

Kerry has impressed me in several ways recently. I didn't see the New York debate, but I thought Kerry did very well in the Los Angeles debate which preceded it. He looked relaxed and responded well (with the exception of his reply to the gay marrige question, which he certainly should have expected and should have been better prepared for). Not only that, but there are the complaints from the Edwards' camp that Kerry has co-opted their campaign tropes and integrated them into his own, which echo the same charges made by Dean's campaign -- and to this I say "Great!", because one good way to neutralize Bush is to take over his game, not by being a DLC Republican-lite, but by pulling the rug out from under him. Kerry's already shown that he understands that with his recent speech on terrorism, which effectively positions him to Bush's right on that issue. (Once again, Publius has a great explanation of why that could be very effective against Bush.)

I think that my opinion of Kerry as a candidate has gone up quite a bit in the last week or so, which is good because it's pretty much a sure thing that he'll be the nominee -- Edwards really has too far to go in too short a time to make up the deficit in delegates unless he starts winning states and taking the lion's share of the spoils from Kerry, and there's little indication that this will come about. Make no mistake, I don't expect Edwards to do badly tomorrow, but I also don't think he can do well enough to close the gap significantly. The front-loaded primary system works against him that way, it doesn't give him enough time to take full advantage of the good press he's getting, or to work the voters the way he could when concentrating on one or two states at a time. He cannot go on giving up Californias in order to win Georgias and expect to stop Kerry.

So Kerry's the man, and Kerry's doing good -- but I nevertheless expect to pull the lever for Edwards tomorrow.

Let me explain.

As soon as Edwards bows out, and Kerry becomes the nominee in all but name, several things will happen. First, the media, which in general doesn't much like Kerry (another negative for him, raising the possibility that they'll Gore him as in 2004 -- but I don't expect Kerry to take it the way Gore did), no longer having a fair-haired boy to back in Edwards, and lacking any kind of horse race to report on, will turn off of the Democrats almost entirely. Kerry will get some down time to recuperate, which I'm sure he'll appreciate, but at the expense of a lot of free media time and attention paid to Democratic concerns, liberal ideas, and progressive programs. Since Bush, as the head of the sitting administration, has myriad ways to control what the press talks about and reports on, Kerry starts off at a disadvantage, and without the attraction of the "can the underdog win?" story to bring the cameras in, it's likely that Kerry, instead of getting free media time, will be looking at a lot of media-free time -- at least until the convention. That's a long time.

Second, Rove will use Kerry's annointment as his cue to unleash that $100 almost $200 million he's got burning a hole in his pocket. It's better for Bush to start the attack on the Democratic nominee as soon as possible in order to prevent him from getting any momentum going, but they don't want to start until they know who they're attacking. Why waste money on someone who's not going to be the candidate? (Of course, with as much money as they've got in the bank, maybe it doesn't make any difference to them, and any attack on Edwards could still be useful if he's Kerry's running mate.)

So, as I've written before, the best thing for us all is to keep the Kerry vs. Edwards road show going for as long as we possibly can. As long as it continues, we get media attention, as long as it continues, Rove is potentially inhibited from unleashing his dogs. We obviously can't keep it going forever, of course, because the media will lose interest if there's not at least the appearance of a possibility that Edwards could come out on top, and Edwards himself has to be able to get out before he starts looking as foolish as Dennis Kucinich or Al Sharpton -- but we can keep it going for a while longer, and that's what I want.

So my vote for Edwards is a tactical one, to keep the game going while we still can.

Postscript: OK, I realize that my remark about Sharpton & Kucinich was a cheap shot. I fully realize that Denny & Al are in it for reasons other than to win the nomination, but I still find their presence at the debates annoying and distracting.

Post-postscript: People who have known me for a while may see a resemblence between this decision, to vote for Edwards for tactical reasons, not necessarily because I'd prefer him to be the candidate, and the suggestion that I made four years ago that people who lived in states which were safe for Gore (as New York was, with Gore holding a 30 point advantage at the time) might want to consider voting for Nader in order to send a message to the Democratic party that they were upset that the party had turned away from progressive and liberal policies. (I never suggested that people in swing states or those where Gore wasn't very safely ahead do so -- I wanted Gore to win.) I think that's a fair comparison.

In both cases my choice (my suggestion in 2000, since I opted to vote for Gore) was prompted by the structural qualities of the way the election was set up, which made or makes my vote for my preferred candidate practically meaningless. In 2000, the Electoral College and Gore's big lead in New York meant that my vote for him, although adding to his national popular vote total (and thereby helping to shore up the moral victory he won), did practically nothing. The same is true now, where the front-loaded primary system gives the early winner such an advantage that it's difficult, if not impossible, for it to be overcome.

I don't see anything particularly wrong in working the system I'm presented with, instead of working the system (direct election) that people like to think we've got.

Update (3/2): I realize that there are downsides to keeping the primaries going, primarily that money gets spent, and that's a problem since (as always) we're at such a disadvantage money-wise compared to the GOP. I understand there are reasons for the DNC and Kerry (as the probable candidate) to want to wrap things up sooner rather than later, and have more money available for the general election. I just don't think that the amount that will be saved will be anything more than a drop in the bucket compared to the hugh warchest that Bush has, so the Dems are going to be forced into using the fund-raising techniques that Dean and Trippi pioneered just to stay in the game. I have faith that enough money will come from that vector to make up for extending the primary fight for another couple of weeks, especially if Kerry pulls back and doesn't compete where he doesn't have to.

After all, it's not as if we're getting nothing for that money, we're getting all that "free" media attention, which is dirt-cheap compared to buying airtime. I, of course, don't have any numbers to back this up (nor is it reasonable to assume that I'd be interpreting them correctly if I did have them), but it's my gut feeling that the additional expensive is worth what we get.

Ed Fitzgerald | 3/01/2004 11:46:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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