Is the USA about to enter a time of significant political change? Since the presidential campaign has moved to center stage, that question hovers in the air.
Last summer, last fall, the most interesting political activity in the nation centered on the insurgent candidacy, for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, of Howard Dean, former Vermont governor. Dr Dean captured the imagination of the media, which placed his face on the cover of major newsmagazines and gave him more television time than all other competitors, combined.
Three aspects of Dean’s candidacy fascinated reporters covering the early stages. First, he – or, more appropriately his campaign manager, Joe Trippi – initiated a new approach to politicking the general public: dot.com politics. Dean launched a website that attracted potential supporters. In addition to the conventional paraphernalia – stands on issues, a potted biography, photographs – the website featured an enticing “blog”. This recounted the daily, even hourly, activities of the campaign; it also allowed supporters across the country to report on what they were doing. Visitors to the website felt that they were part of the campaign and its inner workings.
Second, the attractive website encouraged supporters and potential supporters to attend local gatherings in which they would talk about the Dean candidacy and plan out local organizing efforts on his behalf. It very much seemed like Dean had found a new way to involve a whole strata of disaffected Americans. And, in a nation where a bare majority of eligible voters participate in Presidential polls, and less than a third in Congressional elections, this seemed newsworthy. (My own view was that many of these “new” participants, although angered by the Iraq war and by the President’s policies, would likely not have staying power – a view which subsequent events has largely borne out.)
So there were many who were attracted to Dean, at first because he claimed he was the only (actually several other candidates fit this description) candidate who had opposed the US war on Iraq. He presented himself as going against the mainstream of politicians in the country and even his party. He asserted that the record showed he was a man of foresight, able to see what his major opponents didn’t: that President Bush was about to engage in a war which would weaken rather than strengthen the USA. With 40 per cent of the electorate opposed to the war, Dean found a ready constituency.
He solidified that constituency by claiming that he was running as the candidate of the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” This was meant to emphasize his difference from many Democrats in Washington who, made timid by the popularity of Bush and afraid of the mantle of patriotism and anti-terrorism with which he so successfully cloaked all his activities, shirked the role of stringently opposing Bush’s policies. For time and again some Democrats voted with Bush on tax cuts for the wealthy, restricting civil liberties, eliminating environmental protections, and supplanting aid for education with calls for testable educational “standards”.
Third, money flowed into the Dean campaign, money given – in a coming of age of the computer generation – over the Internet. Dean far outraised his competitors, and the media, seeing that money fuels campaigns, decided that this made him the man to beat in the race to the Democratic nomination.
Thus, in December, Howard Dean headed into the upcoming early votes with a strong lead in the polls, in fund-raising, and in media attention. Though he had been a conservative governor, he was the favorite of the left-wing of the Democratic party because of his opposition to the Iraq war; though a son of the upper class and a beneficiary of all the right “connections”, he ran as an outsider determined to overthrow those in Washington: not only the President, but the quiescent legislators of this own party.
The first contest was in Iowa, part intensely rural, part urban, with far less minority presence than the country as a whole. Iowa holds “caucuses”, in which groups of citizens in each community assemble and elect candidate-committed delegates to a state convention. Meeting voters face to face, rather than solely depending on television interviews, advertisements, and mail promotions, allows those voters to actually become acquainted with each of the candidates. Dean spent much of the previous two years in Iowa, visiting every county, determined to begin his campaign with a major victory.
It was not to be. As the front-runner, he faced questions about his record and his past statements: some came in the form of attacks by his opponents, some raised by the media. (He would later blame the media, failing to recognize that a campaign like his that had depended so heavily on media attention – his had garnered far more coverage than any of his opponents – could not complain if a portion of that attention turned from adulation to questioning.) The questions led to some slippage in his poll standings. Of more consequence was his decision to respond to negative advertising by his main opponent in Iowa, Representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri, with negative advertising of his own.
Dean’s anger at Bush’s policies was popular, but when it appeared that he was a candidate fueled by anger, his support slipped substantially. (When, following his third-place finish in the caucuses, Dean neglected to congratulate his successful opponents, and instead rolled up his sleeves and yelled to rally them onward to victory in future states, his red-faced, bulging-necked performance was replayed again and again on the television news in the following days. His imaged morphed from a vocal critic to that of the angry man of US politics, his anger fueled by what appeared to be an insistent desperation. It was an anger against, not an anger for: not an anger on behalf of the poor and the overworked middle class, but an anger against all that might prevent him from surging toward hoped-for victory.)
Meanwhile, other political activity was occurring. There had been two early favorites for the Democratic nomination. One was Senator Joseph Lieberman, a right-wing, militarist Democrat who had been the Vice-Presidential candidate with Al Gore, who narrowly lost (or maybe won: the election was decided by the courts, not the electorate) to the Bush-Cheney ticket in 2000. But as Dean showed, the majority of Democrats were angry: at Bush and his Iraq war, at the extreme conservative bent of the country under the incumbent administration, at the policies of Bush who rewarded privilege while seeming to ignore the massive financial scandals perpetrated by some of his strongest backers. Lieberman offered not an alternative but a pale imitation of Bush. He would garner barely any support in the early primaries, and soon dropped out of the contest altogether.
The other early favorite was Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. What lent him distinction was his history: a wounded veteran of the Vietnam War, he helped lead the activist group, Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But his early campaign efforts foundered: his vote to support giving war-making authority to Bush in the Iraq situation, a vote similar to most Senate Democrats, didn’t endear him to a Democratic constituency deeply unhappy with the war. Nor did his early and sometimes confused attempts to explain that he intended to give the President bargaining power, not to approve of going into a “pre-emptive” war with a minimum of international support, resound well with Democratic voters. He was leaden in his self-presentation, ponderous and given to long-winded speeches.
But as Dean’s early lead quavered, two signal forces reshaped the Kerry candidacy. One was the candidate himself: suddenly, when he appeared on television or before live audiences, he seemed more casual, more like a person than a political automaton. His positions were often spelled out with more clarity than his rivals’. And, with the Dean example in front of him, he began attacking the President for his failed economic policies (more than 15 per cent of the nation’s manufacturing jobs have been lost in the past three years, a budget deficit this year of over $500 billion), for his neglect of public education, for this callousness towards the preservation of environmental quality.
In the other major event, US veterans responded to the Kerry candidacy. Though labor unions supported Gephardt and Dean, providing campaign workers in every district that had a caucus, veterans suddenly emerged as a political force.
The continuing casualties in the growing quagmire of Iraq seemed purposeless to many military men. There has thus been among veterans and the military a growing discontent with Bush’s leadership, a discontent fanned into flames by the single most stupid mistake: while the President was giving billions of dollars in tax breaks to the very wealthiest Americans, he was cutting back funding for on the health services which had been promised to veterans.
Every day of the week before the Iowa caucuses, overnight tracking polls showed an ebbing of Dean’s backing and a rising tide of support for Kerry. When the voters went to the caucuses on 19 January, they gave Kerry a sizeable plurality of the delegates; and in a stunning surprise, the southern Senator, John Edwards came in second. Dean registered in a distant third, with 18 per cent of the delegates (to Kerry’s 38 per cent and Edwards’ 32 per cent).
A week later, first actual vote took place in New Hampshire. Whereas in early January Dean held a lead of 20 percentage points in the polls, he entered the frenzied final week of campaigning considerably behind Kerry in New Hampshire polling. Election night would bear out these numbers, with Kerry winning strongly over Dean once again.
In the weeks following, Kerry won primaries and caucuses in eight of 10 states. At the moment of this writing, it seems an overwhelming likelihood that he will be the Democratic challenger to the current President.
What has this primary season meant for US politics, and for the larger international community? First, owing to the candidacy of Dean, it’s clear that there is a large fund of anger in the USA toward the incumbent President. Domestically, there is deep worry that the economy is on its way to free-fall, at least as regards working Americans: the wealthy have seen the value of the stock portfolios rise significantly in the past half year, but it has been a “jobless recovery”, with unemployment and underemployment a continuing problem. There is anger that money is available to “rebuild” Iraq but none to provide health insurance to the 43 million who lack it, or the additional 30 million who have lacked it at some time in the past two years. Bush is widely perceived as a leader committed to the interests of the extremely affluent, and indifferent to the needs of the other 98 per cent of Americans.
That anger at the President extends to foreign policy, normally not a preeminent concern with US voters. The threat of Saddam Hussein’s cache of weapons of mass destruction is now widely seen as fiction. The continuing casualty rate among US soldiers, the lack of a reasonable resolution to Iraqi governance, makes Iraq appear a vast swamp in which the USA’s military is mired. When things go wrong, the President, as Commander-in Chief, must accept the blame.
In the most recent polls, Kerry leads Bush, 53 to 46 per cent, in a mythical race for the Presidency. What he has going for him – war hero, opponent of wars – is highlighted by recent charges that Bush, who once served in the domestic National Guard, didn’t even fully discharge that obligation: it may be that for a period as long as one year he avoided reporting for military duty he was charged with performing.
Still, the savage undercurrent beneath US elections is money, and the incumbent President has amassed more campaign funding than any candidate in history: $120 million, an amount that grows weekly as the President holds $1000-a-plate dinners all over the country. It is very possible – this is the dirty secret of US politics – to buy elections, not by paying voters directly, but by mounting a barrage of expensive television ads attacking one’s opponent and boosting one’s own media-created persona. No one viewing the current scene expects the President to back away from huge media expenses, or from using the media to exploit wedge issues, which are usually lumped under the heading “defending family values”, a code phrase which refers to mustering attacks on the poor, on people of color, on immigrants, on women and on homosexuals.
So the campaign for the Presidency is taking shape. It will likely be Senator Kerry versus President Bush. Kerry will run pledging a domestic economic policy that recognizes the needs of the middle class and working people, and a sane and multilateral foreign policy. The President will run on the issue of terrorism: “I’m a war president,” he asserted recently. “I make decisions here in the Oval Office in foreign policy matters with war on my mind.” He will use wedge issues – abortion, homosexual partnerships, removing affirmative action policies that guarantee equal participation by all races in education in employment – to undercut the economic consensus Kerry will try to put together. And he will use money, massive amounts of it, to dominate the television airwaves.
The contest has just begun.
(The author was Fulbright Visiting Professor of English at Calcutta University. He is Professor of English at the University of Vermont.)
Copyright 2004 The Statesman