James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Doing in Dean

Someone gave me a fairly large refrigerator magnet for Christmas. It’s just white lettering on a black background. It reads: “If voting could really change things, it would be illegal.”

It’s an old whine, of course, and I had two immediate reactions. The first was that I wish the people who make those things would get the language right; it should be, “really could change things,” not “could really change things.” The other was annoyance at the slogan. Such cynicism is tiresome – or was. But right on the heels of those thoughts, in a split second, came the realization that if Nominal President Bush is reelected this year, that nasty little slogan may prove to be true. We will be solidly into the post-Constitutional era of government.

Given reelection, the right wingers who wield most of the power in Washington will be in position to overwhelm the electoral process to the point that its proper function can never be recovered. Money, already outrageously powerful in Bush’s Washington and an increasing number of state houses, will control all – that and the police powers which the right increasingly uses to shut down opposition.

Given the results of the Iowa caucuses, and the latest polls from New Hampshire, it looks like the Democrats are fixin’ to lay down and die. The press has been busy digging the grave for months.

That’s a small exaggeration, actually. The right will have to tolerate a feeble Democratic Party as a permanent “loyal opposition,” to give the appearance of legitimacy. They might even have to slip the Dems a few bucks under the table now and then to keep them alive.

In an ironic and painful way, that would be appropriate. The Democrats are in serious danger of nicing themselves into uselessness. Church-basement politeness is more important than winning to many of them. You could see that in Iowa.

Obviously, a number of situations and attitudes came into play to turn the Iowans so suddenly away from Dean and toward old Establishment John Kerry and Hopeful John Edwards.

The press is playing it down, but it seems obvious that the energetic last minute push for Kerry by union leaders – always 10 to 20 years behind reality on politics and social issues – was important. They came out hard and strong, and they played the right notes for their members: Kerry is a good, ol’ boy Democrat who always rubs the bellies of union leaders and coos for them. If not big on unions, Edwards at least knows better than to appear anything but respectful to big-union leaders, who simply love politicians who know them by name, give them big-grin greetings and clasp the union guy’s right hand in both of their own when they meet.

The Des Moines Register’s endorsement of Edwards probably helped break the Dean momentum. The Register’s opinion still counts for something in Iowa.

Another very obvious factor was last minute fear of breaking from the old ways. Dean represents something new – well, actually, just something the Democrats haven’t seen in several decades – and when it came to the crunch the Iowans were afraid of such an apparently big change. They looked at each other and decided to stick with the establishment rather than go with a new face and a new approach. Better the devil you know and all that rubbish.

Besides, Dean is so...well, impolite...and Iowans are like Minnesotans in that they can tolerate all degrees of gutlessness, complacency, idiocy and nastiness so long as everything is phrased in polite terms and soft voice. Seeing the man verbally slap the press around and bite back at those who took shots at him had to be unnerving for most Iowans. (Pity there are not many active and energetic folks who still remember “Give ‘em hell Harry” Truman.)

The unremitting attacks on Dean by other candidates also had to have been important. If all of those people were hammering constantly at the man, there must be something wrong with him. Right?

But without question, in my mind, the biggest factor was the press. Not the flap-jawed jackasses on television and radio, but the newspaper people. They despise Dean, and they are more deadly to a candidate they dislike than any hate-spewing broadcaster. They are more deadly because their negative messages, while obvious to someone who knows the game, or even someone who is a really careful reader, are too subtle for the average scanner to recognize. Most people don’t realize they’re being nudged toward dislike and/or fear of a candidate or other public figure.

One piece of the newspaper performance was the unrelenting focus on the attacks on Dean by the other candidates. To large extent, that can be explained by laziness, which is one of the major characteristics of political reporters, particularly when they’re in a herd, as they are on campaigns. It’s so much easier simply to repeat the attacks over and over than to do some real reporting. It takes considerable effort and not a little intelligence to go after the stories the others aren’t getting, and, anyway, its much safer to do what everybody else is doing.

What’s going on with coverage of Dean is nastier than that, however.

The newspaper guys have been sticking needles into Dean for months. It’s easy to do if you’ve a mind to do it. Throughout my reporting career I had to struggle against the temptation when writing about somebody I disliked. Some reporters stare temptation in the face and give right in, and the biggest pushovers are political reporters who disapprove of a candidate.

There is no doubt that the constant digging at Dean had an effect on the Iowa Democrats. It undoubtedly will continue to have an effect on voters across the country.

And now we have New Hampshire and the added issue of “momentum.”

National and international focus moves there, and the Democratic primary voters won’t want to be seen as wrong in the eyes of the world. Many of them will switch from Dean to one or another of the reporters’ (more) approved candidates simply because Dean lost in Iowa. And, of course, the press will continue to hound Dean for his uncouth treatment of them and of Republicans, as well as for losing his big lead in the polls. Folks in New Hampshire aren’t big on impolite liberals either.

In the meantime, the press already has begun dismantling the other Democratic candidates, but that’s another story and won’t take full effect until after the New Hampshire primary.

So why, you may fairly ask, do reporters so detest Dean? The short answers are that he doesn’t treat them with the deference they feel is due them from a newcomer and, secondly, he is not of the establishment, and they are very much establishment creatures. Absurdly, almost all long-time political reporters, particularly those based in Washington, secretly think of themselves as insiders, and they’ll rise in anger against anyone who rudely challenges those who’ve dwelled long in the houses of power.

Much more soon on that, and on how the press twists public perceptions of those they dislike.