Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Dean flap, Part I: A sign of passion that's good for Democrats

As some of you may know, DNC Chair Howard Dean is at the center of a storm of controversy, much of it exaggerated by both the mainstream media (which isn't focusing on the real news) and the right-wing commentariat/blogosphere (which doesn't want to focus on the real news), over certain comments he has made recently regarding Republicans. Here's the story, such as it is, but let's take a look at this a bit more closely over a couple of posts:

I'm philosophically liberal but more of a centrist, Clintonian Democrat, but I honestly have no problem with Dean as DNC Chair. Although the right has (at times successfully) painted him as some sort of Vermontian radical determined to guide America towards some sort of socialist hell (in their view), and although I may disagree with him on any number of specific issues, he brings a passion and a fire (yes, the infamous scream was an unfortunate manifestation) to the table that seems to elude many Democrats. Compare Reid or Pelosi, for example, the Democrats' two Congressional leaders. Now, much of the criticism of late has come from Biden and Edwards, two men who are already running for president and who are trying to stake out territory to the right of Dean (at least in terms of perception). But why can't the Democratic Party be big enough for all of them?

Now, I agree that Democrats need to frame issues more effectively, and it won't help if their leaders, not least the DNC Chair, is mouthing off in such a way as to alienate moderate voters. But what exactly did Dean say? This is important because both the mainstream media and the right-wing commentariat/blogosphere are content to focus on the fact that Democrats are bickering internally rather than on the facts of Dean's comments. First, he said that DeLay should be in jail. Okay, fine. That's blunt. And honest. And, in my view, not all that far off. If not in jail, he should at least be removed from public life -- even if his continuing presence in Congress is a boon to Democrats looking ahead to 2006. Second, he said that Republicans don't understand working-class issues. Well, yeah. That's right on. They don't. They understand some of the values of some working-class Americans (such as those weird Kansans who seem to have something the matter with them), but they don't understand the economic plight of so many of them. Isn't this a big Edwards issue, too?

But then both Biden and Edwards, two nationally-prominent senators, come out (on TV, where they hope secure ever more attention) and claim that Dean doesn't speak for them, that he doesn't speak for many Democrats. I just don't see the problem. The Democratic Party is (or should be) a big-tent party. If you disagree with Dean, fine, but why go out and be so public about it, why try to create a wedge within the party? Why not stand united against the Republicans, while allowing for internal dissent. Personally, I respect the Demcratic Party much more for the fact that it is big enough to contain both Dean and moderates like Biden and Edwards.

I think AMERICAblog gets it right here: The right-wing commentariat, including its vitriolic blogospheric component, is all over this because they love to see Democrats feed on each other. But I do think that Biden and Edwards are both to blame for contributing to the divides that have characteristically sunk the Democratic Party. I'm all for diversity and debate, but let's make sure it's healthy diversity and debate, where different people and ideas are taken seriously and not simply ridiculed or otherwise held up to contempt. If we can learn anything from the Republicans (at least from Reagan's Republicans), it's that, in the end, unity matters.

(For Part II, see here.)

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  • I agree that Democrats should be "crafting substantive policy measures," but behind the scenes. The problem is that it's tough to keep a low profile in Washington, when 2006 is just around the corner and potential candidates are already jockeying for 2008. And, too, Democrats need to be out there fighting, not ceding the microphone to the Republicans. (I mean this in a non-partisan fashion: It would hold if the reverse were the case.) Since so much of politics is perception, and since Democrats need to be perceived to be a serious party capable of governing again, they need to balance introspection (examing themselves, figuring out what they stand for and how they can best "frame" their policies, and otherwise rediscovering some internal dynamism) and a public commitment to unity. Easier said than done, however.

    I would say that at the moment the right gets away with more outrageous comments than the left. To me, this has largely to do with the fact that the parameters of public discourse have largely been set by the right. This may reflect a certain rightward shift in American politics over the past couple of decades, but it also has to do with the right's impressive p.r. machine. The moment anyone on the left says anything, the right's talking points are splattered all over the media. And I don't just mean the right-wing media. And the mainstream media, which is so sensitive these days to the liberal bias label, seems afraid to criticize the right as it does the left.

    But I'd like to hear your take on this, Nate, given that you and I are on different sides of the middle.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 10:42 AM  

  • It's probably quite healthy of you to avoid TV news. I get way too much of it, and I'm sure it's eroding my more humane sensibilities.

    I must admit that I don't follow the blogosphere as closely as some others do. I read a few of my favourites, and I comment on a few of them (like Centerfield, TPM Cafe, The Decembrist, and Political Animal), but I generally don't get caught up in the echo chambers of the left and right. So I'm not sure if the right-wing blogosphere is any more extreme than the left-wing blogosphere. Blogs like Daily Kos and AMERICAblog are deeply partisan, just like their counterparts on the right. But I think the political culture is such that there seems to be greater rigidity on the right at the moment, perhaps stemming from a certain arrogance (or confidence). After all, the right is in power, while the left is struggling to find itself again. That's what I sense, though your impressions, Nate, may be different from mine. I find a bit more debate and diversity on the left, a bit more toeing the party line on the right.

    I agree with you about The Economist, and I try to read it regularly. It's cool, detached neo-liberalism sometimes gets on my nerves, but it's consistently intelligent. The Times is my paper of record, especially for news, but I agree that the editorials are vehemently one-sided (and I generally avoid them). Similarly, the Op-Ed page leaves something to be desired -- I wrote about the Times's columnists some time ago, if you remember.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 1:51 AM  

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