The Long View 2004-01-21: The Iowa Caucuses and the State of the Union

Howard Dean Primal Scream

Howard Dean Primal Scream

What happened to Howard Dean in 2004 is what a lot of knowledgeable observers such as Nate Silver and Ross Douthat expected to happen to Donald Trump in 2015-16. What seems to have changed since 2004 is the Bushes lost control of the Republican party apparatus, and the Clintons have gained control of the Democratic party apparatus.

John also identified two issues here that would doom the Republican party establishment if not handled better: healthcare reform and Social Security. He nailed that one.

The Iowa Caucuses
and the State
of the Union

We should not attribute too much importance to Howard Dean's brief transformation into a werewolf on national television. Although there are certain disturbing similarities between the operation of the Dean campaign and the werewolf underground, actual lycanthropy is quite rare among liberal Democrats. We should recognize that the Iowa Caucus system is an anomalous process that routinely produces anomalous results. The Iowa Caucuses, in which people meet face-to-face and try to persuade each other, tend to filter out pure emotion. That will be much less the case when primary voters make their choices in the privacy of a voting booth. The sort of Democrats most likely to vote in primaries really are as artery-popping angry at George Bush as Howard Dean seems to be.

On the other hand, the defenestration of Howard Dean onto the snows of New Hampshire shows that there still exists a Democratic Party Establishment that is capable of defending itself. Until just last week, some pundits made disparaging comparisons between the inability of the Party elders to control Dean and the quick work that the Bush-family machine made of John McCain in the Republican primaries of 2000. No wing of the Democratic Party, and certainly no Democrat, has anything like the control that the Bushes have. Still, we see now that there really is more to the Party than a mere brand name.

* * *

The problem is that the candidate of the Establishment, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, is no more attractive now than before the Dean insurrection, when Kerry was the nominee presumptive. Howard Dean puts some people off because he lets anger get the better of him. Kerry gives the impression that the opposition is so tacky that he is demeaning himself by talking about it. Kerry suffers from the bane of the Democratic Party: totalitarian liberalism, which begins with the assumption that opposition to its positions is not just wrong, but also illegitimate. This flower of dementia is praised for its sophistication in certain political and academic hothouses, but it does not flourish in the ordinary atmosphere of Earth.

In a way, the most interesting candidate is the runner-up in Iowa, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. Reputedly a brilliant speaker, he prospers by promising employees that he will sue their employers into bankruptcy, and by conveying the reassuring impression that he knows not one whit more about foreign policy than does the average newspaper reader.

Edwards' soft-southern appeal to class resentment never did the South much good; when such people come to power, as they do occasionally, they don't so much provide expanded social services as hire more people to provide them. This usually has ironic results. I'm writing this a few blocks from some bits of urban wasteland that still haven't been reclaimed after the catastrophe of Lyndon Johnson's "Model Cities" program.

* * *

The great merit of President Bush's State of the Union Address was that he reminded the people that they should still be afraid. The US is at war. It was attacked. Further attacks are being attempted. Controlling the problem through law enforcement and transnational politics was tried and did not work. The war in Iraq, apparently, did work: the example has made fence-sitting states more cooperative about rooting out terrorist networks, and all but the looniest rogue states are at least going through the motions of foreswearing WMDs.

In Iraq itself, the war overthrew a regime that was a continuing human-rights violation. There seem to have been no stocks of WMDs, but there were certainly programs to produce them once international pressure relaxed. As in horseshoes, close is good enough.

Allowing for certain omissions and ambiguities, this part of the speech was essentially correct. John Kerry's critique of Bush's foreign policy is a heroic attempt by the Eastern Establishment to throw itself back into the delusion of the Clinton years. Most Americans, probably, accept Bush's analysis. The problem is that the people could declare victory prematurely, and then look at the rest of the speech

* * *

The best that can be said for the domestic part of the address is that it does not violate the principle of "first, do no harm." There were no major spending initiatives, and the tax-reduction proposals (still) were familiar.

Two items struck me. One was that Bush spoke for 10 minutes about adding incremental changes to the already complex system of subsidies and tax inducements by which the federal government manages the health-insurance system. Then the president ended that section by promising to maintain private health care. There has been little "private" about it for time out of mind. It's a parastatal system that produces a mediocre product at inflated costs. A Democratic reform proposal that is both plausible and can be stated in a few words could lose Bush the election.

Then there's Social Security. The president said that he wants to turn Social Security into an "ownership program." It's not an ownership program; it's a guaranteed old-age pension. Certain augmentations have been added in recent years, but in essence that's what it is. If the Republican Party cannot grasp that kind of point, the Party's national position will collapse as soon as the international situation conspicuously improves.

* * *

The president also supported a constitutional amendment to define marriage. He did so elliptically, as something that would become an issue only if the courts tried to preempt the issue. By this, he was inviting the Cultural Left to also "first, do no harm." Not likely.

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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