Monday, November 09, 2015

Bernie Sanders's Calculation and Howard Dean's Revisionism

This BuzzFeed article on the state of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign received a fair amount of attention late last week. It is certainly a revealing look into some of the challenges faced by Sanders strategists as they decide on the next steps for their campaign. But the piece also contains some arguments that strike me as worth examining further.

The framing here is so well-worn—will a political "outsider" remain true to his principles, or will he compromise his cherished ideals in order to gain a chance at power?—that it should provoke a certain amount of instinctive skepticism in the reader. We are told that such thoroughly unremarkable steps for a presidential campaign as hiring a professional pollster and running television ads that refer to the candidate as an "honest leader" are risky moves for Sanders because they constitute the "trappings of a traditional politician." Clearly, the press is on the lookout for any scrap of evidence to suggest that Sanders is not indifferent to political calculation—but unless he is reneging on a previous pledge to ignore professional strategic advice or to portray himself in a flattering manner, it is unclear why engaging in these particular activities represents a notable departure for his campaign.

A truly egregious example of spin run amok, however, is the retconning of the 2004 Howard Dean campaign engineered by former aides to Dean—a brazen rewriting of history that lies unchallenged within the article itself. To hear the Dean crew tell it today, their man was a happy warrior who was reluctantly drawn into personal conflict with a desperate Dick Gephardt in the days before the Iowa caucuses, which ultimately doomed his candidacy by making him appear like an "ordinary politician" (thus somehow precipitating his decisive defeat at the hands of fellow ordinary politicians John Kerry and John Edwards). Ex-Dean and Obama staffer Ben LaBolt told BuzzFeed that “a contested back-and-forth over votes and character feels like politics-as-usual to voters. When you’re running as a different candidate who wants to start a revolution rather than effectively manage the political process, that does brand damage.”

In reality, the provocation of a "contested back-and-forth over votes and character" is an unwittingly but remarkably apt characterization of Dean's entire presidential campaign from start to finish. Dean spent all of 2003 repeatedly blasting away at his major rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, in particularly sharp terms and often by name, over their votes to authorize the Iraq War on the floor of Congress, while suggesting over and over again that his opponents were not only advocates of deeply flawed policy but disloyal Democrats who lacked the courage to stand up to George W. Bush. (Dean was even forced to apologize to John Edwards at one point after falsely claiming that Edwards had been publicly duplicitous about his Iraq views.) This attack-dog style was highly effective in transforming Dean into a serious contender, and even a consensus front-runner by the end of 2003, after initially appearing to be a second-tier candidate. Though his strategy ultimately proved insufficient to deliver Dean the Democratic nomination, it is hard to see how an alternative Mister-Nice-Guy approach would have served him any better, and the insinuation that Dean's defeat was really Dick Gephardt's fault smacks more of a long-held grudge than objective political analysis.

If we are compelled to rely on tropes from dramatic tragedy in order to make sense of electoral politics, the Faustian bargain is probably less applicable here than a kind of irony in which the protagonist's tragic flaw is merely the flipside of his or her greatest strength. The identical qualities that made Dean and Sanders attractive to their factions of fervent supporters have also worked to limit the breadth of their appeal within the Democratic Party, to say nothing of the larger electorate. Political consultants and other campaign professionals tend to resist this line of thinking, as it suggests that they cannot necessarily strategize their way to victory. But Sanders's (modest) chances of winning the 2016 nomination depend on a large array of factors that weigh much more heavily than the question of whether or not he begins to criticize Hillary Clinton more frequently on the campaign trail.

The BuzzFeed piece on Sanders concludes that "shifting between outsider iconoclast, hard-nosed politician, and back again, is easier said than done." The authors obviously mean to say that they perceive the persona of "inspiring idealist" to be fundamentally incompatible with that of "vocal critic of one's opponents." An iconoclast, however, is literally someone who destroys sacred images and totems, which suggests, in part, a certain hardness of nose. Regardless of whether or not Bernie Sanders explicitly mentions Hillary Clinton in his ads or stump speeches, he is openly challenging her position as heir apparent in the Democratic Party. If his support has begun to stall, perhaps the reason is simply that the basic premise of his candidacy simultaneously attracts enthusiasm among a significant minority of Democrats while failing, at least so far, to convince the remaining majority. His campaign thus faces less of a strategic dilemma than an unfavorable political reality.