Friday, January 23, 2004

A Rebel Yells in Iowa

Dean's rebel yell has attracted a critical mass of media attention. It is as if the entire last year is being eclipsed by one single moment of exuberence. It has attracted a good deal of muscial parody, and humor, even by Dean himself. Last night on David Letterman he lampooned himself neatly with a Letterman top ten. The number one way Dean can turn things around, delivered in a self-deprecating manner by Dean himself, being " "Oh, I don't know -- maybe fewer crazy, redfaced rants?"

The moment seems to have crystalized and condensed all the media's constantly voiced concerns about Dean's 'angry' style and 'explosive' or 'combative' style. As anyone who has met the man knows, this is all bullshit. He is the most kind, self-effacing, humble, and gentle politician imaginable. But this is overshadowed by his unfortunate tendency to redden when orating, narrow his eyes when he's making a point about the current Administration that really personally offends him, and fail to suffer fools gladly. However, this deluge of bad press and fall in polls may be a blessing in disguise. By bringing to a head the heretofore diffuse and nagging appearances of the 'angry meme' in the form of this one moment, it gives the campaign a chance to expunge the "Gored" character frame the media is building around Dean once and for all.

I think it is actually lucky that these themes have crystalized into a single incident and that it has happened so early. Yes, Dean is suffering now and has lost Iowa and may also lose NH, but our campaign has violated Conventional Wisdom so often it has become the norm. Now we are going to upset the idea that the winner of IA and NH has a clear path to the nomination. We have a firebreak in the form of Mini Tuesday, for which Kerry and Edwards are competely unprepared on the ground and will be suffering from very slim staffing and hastily produced and placed paid media (assuming they even have the money for it). They will be relying almost entirely on mo and free media, and we are all too well aware of the fickleness of both. They do not have a clear path to carry their mo out of NH. Edwards has prospects SC, but there is a lot of competition, not the least of which is the cany street politician Rev. Sharpton, whose supporters may not mind that he knows little about the Fed. But both Kerry and Edwards are facing a serious lack of preparation on the ground in Mini Tuesday and the states leading up to Super Tuesday. This is a tremendous opportunity for us to put this ridiculous character "Goreing" to bed and restart the campaign on an even firmer footing. IA and NH are insignificant in terms of delegates, they have always been about mo, expectations, and opening donors wallets. We have staying power, conviction, and our wallets are already open; we only need to stay calm, get out Dean's message, and send in the cash. Dean is still the same candidate, the race is still the same race; all that is different is that we face the need to be even more determined, more creative, and more persuasive. We have always been the outsiders in the race. We got used to being the front-runners when the press annointed Dean, but now we simply have to accept that this fight will be longer and harder and, ultimately, more rewarding than we had come to expect.

Two themes are emerging as to how to fight back against the 'angry meme' which Dean's rebel yell has brought into focus: humor and leadership. Humor is taking care of itself; the "I have a scream" speech is becoming too humourous to take seriously as a character issue. The more silly and ridiculous the parody and self-parody becomes, the less it is an actual concern about the mental health or character of Dean. It becomes an inside joke, an endearing silliness, and a reason to feel sympathetic and warm toward the Governor. It was silly, but it was harmless to anyone except himself. It showed great reserves and spirit, optimism, and determination. It showed genuine emotion, a bond of empathy with his supporters, and a virile magnetism of the sort that President Rubber Turkey could never match. The more play that it gets, the more people will start getting used to the idea of a President who can demonstrate genuine emotion and enthusiasm. Ultimately, I think the campaign might even consider using this incident in ads targeting blue collar voters, southerners, younger voters, and women.

On the leadership track, the case can be made, and is being made, that Dean was simply caught in a moment of group-appropriate leadership that was out of context for a televised speech of a man who just 'lost' a state where he was expected to prevail. The style, delivery, and passion was entirely appropriate, even masterful, for the immediate audience - 3,500 ardent young supporters who just worked their hearts out for Dean and lost- but dissonant with expectations of those watching on TV - the secondary audience.

Motivational experts agree than Dean's behavior was contextually correct. "I thought his approach last night was very appropriate in the context," said Jeff Keller, a motivational speaker based in Oyster Bay and author of "Attitude is Everything." "Here's a guy who suffered a crushing defeat and he has a base of support that's largely young people and young people respond to energy."

Seattle-based motivational expert Chris Widener, explains that Dean's passion on Monday night could cut two ways: "If you position him as a more regal type it wouldn't fly anyway [because] he's the firebrand. You want him to come out and get fired up. He's the one railing against the establishment." George W. Bush, he adds, "would never have yelled like that because people would have thought he was off his rocker." But "the downside of screaming," says Widener, "is that it gets down to: The guy with the nuclear football is given to emotional tirades. We want him to be even-tempered and regal."

Dean's interview with Dianne Sawyer may have gone a long way toward soothing that concern. Dean explained that he did what he did for the crowd of young people who needed a boost. He was serene, calm, and intelligent as Sawyer repeatedly pushed him to address people's concerns. Her questioning was tough, direct and right on target, and Dean and Judy punched one out of the park.

Using these themes of humor, self-awareness, and leadership technique and style, the concerns about how Dean seems can be put to bed as a matter of what Dean is consciously doing to address voters psychological and emotional needs in facing the coming battle with the Bush Administration. Dean's ability to use humor to deflate the ridiculous and pompously self-important, and his ability to shape a motivating persona and message for the audience he is working with, can even become a selling point for Dean. Democrats will need a dose of humor and ridicule to let the air out of Bush's made-for-parody Presidency. We also need someone who is capable of keeping up our spirits in adversity and adept at motivating voters with emotional appeals.

'Crypt Thing' Kerry is certainly not the man to do either. His glum, uninspired, inoffensive, and content-free message fails to offend, but it also fails to inspire. One gets the impression that Kerry is a corporation of pollsters, spin docs, media advisors, and focus groups disguised to look like a person. Such inoffensive leadership will make the Democratic party an inoffensive and toothless minority for another four years.

'Breck Girl' Edwards certainly has the rhetorical and persuasive skills needed for the job. He can captivate a room of listeners for hours, but he lacks experience and substance. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo recently noted that Edwards is like a meal of excellent Chinese food; really wonderful while you are eating, but a few hours later you wonder what the fuss was about and crave some steak.

Edwards didn't even complete a single term as Senator before declaring for the Presidency. That is as presumptuous as Bush's own precipitous and premature bid for the Presidency. Thinking that one is prepared to be President after such a short apprenticeship in national policy and politics is simply hubris. Look at the results with Bush.

This is my largest concern about 'Republican Lobbyist' Clark, too. Clark or Edwards would be far better that what we have, they both are possessed of a fine mind and bedrock values that would lead them to be concerned stewards of the public trust, but it's really just too soon to hand either of them the reigns. I say come back when you've proven that you can deliver for the people, not just talk purty or flash an impressive bio.

We have allowed the debate about qualifications to compete with Bush to dominate this nomination contest. It is instructive that Kerry's whole stump in NH is focused on veterans and military affairs with a footnote about domestic policy. The is a subtext at work here; the Kerry camp is signalling that they will not be vulnerable to Republican impugning of his patriotism and strength on security issues.

The flaw in Kerry's vision of the general election is that his plays directly into the hands of the GOP's strategy to focus the election on finer points of security and foreign policy. We need to debunk the whole idea of Bush's electoral strength. He is at just 41% re-elect numbers; he's not strong, he's collapsing. Democrats can win easily if they take the initive and frame the debate and not just respond to the Administrations issue frames. The primary standard for this nomination fight then becomes not who has the fewest policy differences with Bush for the GOP to hammer at, but who has the most; consenting to step onto the GOP's carefully prepared dance floor simply invites the GOP to dance the "compassionate" tango and move into your issue-space.

Indeed, if the Primary gets bogged down in the issue of who would be the best Bush opponent, voters have been stopped short of asking the most salient and objective question about the nomination; who will be the best President? Dean wins that debate hands down. With his executive experience, record of delivering on what he now promises, demonstrated wisdom in foriegn affairs, history of balancing budgets, and ability to motivate the respect and love of the electorate to achieve difficult goals, he is clearly the best man in the field to be the next President of the United States, rebel yells and all. Dean will only win this fight when voters stop saying, "ABB" and start asking themselves, "Which of these men do I want to be my President?"

ABB is a standardless standard. Obviously, any of the Democrats would be better than Bush. It is only when one voices a value laden criteria for nomination a Presidential candidate, the ability to be an excellent President, that the candidates become clearly distinguishable. After all, who really knows what the best characteristics are to beat Bush; nobody has ever beaten Bush in the 2004 election, so we haven't any basis from which to judge. However, we have had 43 Presidents, and we have some data from which to draw some reasonable inferences about the kind of men, the kind of experience, and the kind of leadership skills it takes to be a good one.

So, next time someone asks you about Dean's rebel yell, tell your favorite joke, then tell them why he did it. Next time someone says, "ABB," stop them and tell them why they need to think about selecting a President, not an anti-Bush. Next time someone asks you if Dean is going down in flames, tell them that we have not yet begun to fight.


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