BERLIN — It is odd to follow American politics at a distance. The instrumentation is the same — what the candidates say, what people write in the newspapers, discussions with people living in different parts of the country. But it is like watching events unfold through the other end of a spyglass.
The daily stories about the campaign are less interesting here — gay marriage, Ralph Nader, the outsourcing of jobs, the primaries. Stories about the candidates in the context of recent history seem to matter more.
Take the sharp difference of opinion about the significance of Howard Dean’s now-ended presidential candidacy that surfaced last Sunday between David Broder of the Washington Post and Todd Purdum of the New York Times.
Broder predicted that the Dean candidacy would turn out to be a landmark event in Democratic Party history. Not that his supporters would play much of a role in deciding whether John Kerry or John Edwards gets the nomination. Dean’s failed candidacy “may mean little in the politics of 2004,” wrote Broder, “but a great deal more in years to come.”
Why? Think of Barry Goldwater among Republicans, Broder continued. Or Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern for the Democrats
“Candidates who attract a passionate following — because of the issues they raise, rather than their own White House credentials — frequently launch their acolytes into political careers that become the next generation’s richest sources of leadership.”
“…Though they were seen as losers at the time, the energy they created in their campaigns fueled dozens of valuable legatees.”
Thus Ronald Reagan cut his teeth in the Goldwater campaign. Bill Clinton started his political career working for McGovern.
True, both Goldwater and McGovern gained their party’s nomination. But Dean is like them in one important respect, according to Broder.
“Though voters decided he did not have the personal qualities they seek in a president, his definition of the policy choices facing the country resonated so strongly that it changed the entire political environment.”
Purdum took the opposite position. The “supposedly smart money” had been wrong about Dean from the beginning. It was no more likely to be right at the end.
“Odds are good that some early post-mortems predicting his lasting impact may be similarly shortsighted.”
It was true enough that Dean had inspired a new generation of young volunteers, Purdum continued. But “their orange hats and intensity may have repelled as many voters as they energized.”
Moreover, Dean “lacked a broad public policy agenda that was sharply different from most of his rivals. He was for expanded health care, smaller tax cuts and a humbler foreign policy, but so, more or less, were they.” And his failure to deliver “an alternative economic plan of his own” ultimately helped bring him down.
This clearly is an exchange between a beat reporter who thinks that everything rides on what happens in the fall and an observer with a very long-time frame. (Broder is the dean of American political journalists.) But I take it to be something more. It represents the difference of opinion between those who expect much from the current election and those who expect little.
My money is on Broder.
The fact is that it was Dean who set the agenda for the coming election. Almost all the major positions of the emergent Democratic Party platform were developed by him. It is not clear how these positions will play out in the hands of others. But in time, they are capable of carrying the day.
Purdum thinks there was no “historical force” behind Dean, only anti-Bush backlash. I think he is wrong. Indeed, I suspect Dean’s influence will turn out to resemble that of Barry Goldwater more than anyone else.
Dean’s position on the war in Iraq was, I think, widely misunderstood. Had he succeeded in winning the nomination, almost certainly he would have moved towards the center.
He would have promised the same sort of responsible stewardship as that with which Dwight Eisenhower, having been elected in 1952, took over and ended Harry Truman’s Korean War in 1953.
For despite a certain amount of bungling in post-war Iraq, a less-pugnacious variant of the Bush doctrine is likely to remain US foreign policy for many years to come.
It was Dean, too, who was by far the sharpest critic of George Bush’s domestic strategy — enormous tax cuts despite looming crises in Social Security and Medicare funding.
As Broder wrote, “Almost single-handedly at first, [Dean] put those two topics on the agenda for the 2004 election, and they will remain there — though he is gone.” They will remain there after the election, too — until they are resolved.
John Kerry probably cannot win the presidency against George Bush. For the purposes of restoring a fairly widely-shared conviction that the country is “moving in the right direction,” it probably would not matter if he did. (The unexpected sometimes happens.) Each side is doomed to loathe the other’s standard-bearer for as long as he is on the scene.
Leaving aside the remote possibility of an Edwards presidency, whatever happens next won’t begin to heal the breach that developed before the 1992 election in the tradition of bipartisan consensus and fair play.
But starting in 2008, or, at the latest, in 2012, a Democratic Party candidate may emerge who can command a significant majority among voters in the general election. The Republican dominated Congress won’t change much, at least not quickly.
But with strong executive leadership, a return seems likely to the kind of politics that we like to think of as “progress” in the United States — along the lines of the interpretation of fiscal and social responsibility put forward this year by Howard Dean.