Who Knew?

As Iowa makes clear, conventional wisdom should come with a health warning.

Wed Jan. 21, 2004 3:00 AM EST

For the Democrats, 2004 was supposed to be the year of the energized base, of the anti-establishment, Internet-fuelled insurgency -- the year, in short, of Howard Dean and his break with Clintonian compromise and wishy-washy centrism. And, hey, for all anyone knows it may yet turn out that way. But the conventional wisdom is looking a bit shaky after Iowa, where John Kerry and John Edwards -- two quintessential moderates -- did unexpectedly well, and Dean did stunningly badly.

Democratic primary voters tend to skew left of the party as a whole, so if even they decided against Dean and for more moderate candiates, what does that say about Dean's chances in a general election? No one can say with certainty (Iowa shows that no one can say anything about this race with certainty), but the results have to ratchet up a few notches the already strong doubts about Dean's "electabilty".

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John Kerry’s win was surprising, given that for the past few months his campaign has been routinely discounted -- nay ridiculed -- by pundits. He got 38 percent of the vote on Monday night’s contest in Iowa, ahead of Edwards with 32 percent. Dean straggled in with 18 percent of the vote.

The winner at Iowa is not automatically the party nominee (far from it), but the caucuses show that Kerry and Edwards may have tapped into something: maybe the Democrats don't need to run on rage.

David Brooks says that Dems aren’t as angry as Dean makes them out to be, and this vote shows it:

"We've learned a lot about the Democratic Party over the past few weeks, culminating with the astounding Kerry and Edwards victories last night. We've learned that the Democratic Party is no longer primarily the party of union guys who want to restrict trade. We've learned that most Democrats are not really furious at "Washington Democrats." They desperately want to remove Bush, but they are not haters. They're not out to punish everybody who voted for the Iraq war resolution."

It could be that anger at the Iraq war is dissipating, which would be bad news for Dean, whose early appeal was founded on his antiwar stance. His poor showing in Iowa may indicate that the war is not a priority for voters. Recent polls show voters were more concerned with jobs and health care than the Iraq war. Nonetheless, the Iraq war may yet turn out to be the polarizing issue for the primaries. Kerry and Edwards both voted for the war, but didn’t vote for the funding of reconstruction. Howard Kurtz discusses the possibility that Democratic voters may have trouble digesting a candidate with an opposing viewpoint on war:

"Can the party remain united in the face of significant divisions over the war? Let's say the nomination goes to Kerry or Edwards. What will the Dean supporters do? Will many stay home, or even bolt to a third party? The polls from Iowa show that many opponents of the war voted for Kerry or Edwards. But that's not the point. The real question is whether the core of voters for whom opposition to the war is the critical issue can be made to feel comfortable with Kerry or Edwards — and whether what it would take to make the core peaceniks comfortable would drive moderate voters away."

It could be that Dean's hotheadedness is turning people off. His concession speech on Monday night was passionate to the point of apoplexy; and some find his manners simply not presidential. This from the National Review:

"Who knows how Democrats — especially Democrats in cranky New Hampshire — will react to Dean's performance last night, but if you had doubts about Dean, they certainly couldn't have been allayed."

Some argue that while Dean’s fervid anti-war stance and angry demeanor may make him undesirable as a candidate, but his anger was necessary to energize the Democratic party in this election. Andrew Sullivan says that its helpful for Dems that Dean was there, but best that a more moderate candidate get chosen:

"It's clear, however, that he [Dean] has performed a great service for the Democrats. He was the vehicle for their rage; and he helped vent and dissipate it. That's not to say Bush-hatred has died. The latest WaPo poll shows a higher number of strongly anti-Bush voters - 30 percent - than ever. But the Dems have obviously decided that it's better to get even rather than mad. Dean's implosion also strikes me as bad news for Wesley Clark. He was supposed to be the anti-Dean, but adopted Deanish rhetoric. Both positions are now somewhat redundant. The Iowa voters - not exactly centrists - picked Kerry and Edwards to be the anti-Dean candidate, and the shrillness of the Dean-Clark message (the shrillness that so appealed to Paul Krugman) was just as soundly rejected. Good news for the Dems - and the country."

Sullivan adds that if a Kerry/Edwards ticket were to win, it might spell trouble for Bush. He calls the duo "credible."

Whatever the results of the primaries, the Iowa caucuses were a success—in terms of engaging voters. The Washington Post says the surprise results mean that voters have been paying attention to the candidates (not the media)—and that’s good for democracy:

"Whatever one's political affiliation, last night offered much to applaud. The caucus system is subject to legitimate criticism that it doesn't offer as direct a test of voter preferences as a primary. But the near-record turnout -- even if it represented a small slice of the electorate -- was a sign of robust, vibrant political debate. And though it had seemed for months that Mr. Dean was the sole Democratic candidate with the ability to excite voters, the closing days proved otherwise."