Over the last two weeks, America and its neighbors have watched as Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire voted for who will challenge George W. Bush in November’s presidential election. In the months leading up to the nation’s first caucus and primary, it seemed as though Howard Dean would sweep the two contests and easily secure the nomination. However, in the few weeks immediately preceding the votes, we watched as Dean’s poll numbers fell and those of Sen. John Kerry rose dramatically, culminating in two wins for Kerry and second and third place showings for Dean. The media’s interpretations of the wins varied, yet one issue stuck out among the rest: electability. The pundits maintained that, in the end, Kerry has a better chance at beating Bush than Dean does. This argument was a central issue in the campaigns of Sen. Joe Lieberman, Sen. John Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley Clark as well.
As it has become a major campaign issue, electability deserves some explanation. What exactly does electability mean? How does a candidate become electable? In Lieberman’s case he claims that he is the only candidate who can attract Republican voters. Relying on his military background and status as a Washington outsider, Clark also alleges that he can cross party lines and attract Republicans (lending further weight to the rumors that Clark is a Republican). Though not explicitly mentioned in Edwards’ campaign, his supporters tout that he is the only Democrat who can win the South. Kerry, though, has been anointed as the most electable. He is a war hero and he has 35 years of Washington experience. Why wouldn’t anyone vote for him?
What is missing from all of these arguments is policy. Sure, the candidates may be able to make it to the White House, but what will they do when they get there? In their fawning over John Kerry’s electability, the Democratic establishment has failed to elucidate what Kerry’s vision of American is. Associated Press exit polling in New Hampshire indicated that a third of the voters, of whom half voted for Kerry, felt that the candidate’s ability to beat Bush was a higher priority than the candidate’s stance on the issues. Voters who felt more strongly about the issues tended to vote for Dean. Love him or hate him, one cannot argue that Dean lacks a coherent vision for the future of this country. He has concrete plans for health care, the economy and the environment, not to mention an unambiguous stance on the war in Iraq.
The irony is that Democrats will not necessarily win by nominating the most “electable” candidate. Because America is so polarized right now, the prized swing voter is a thing of the past. The victorious party in November will be the one that can get the most people to the polls. Democrats need a candidate who will inspire the millions of disaffected and apathetic Americans, college students included, to vote.
Howard Dean has proven that he can mobilize thousands of these people to get involved. Dean’s is a campaign of empowerment; he inspires voters with his oft-repeated refrain, “You have the power to take your country back.” John Kerry does not inspire; instead, he is what The Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson calls “the safe candidate.” America does need a new leader, but the safe candidate is not the way to go.
For the Democrats, choosing electability is conceding on policy. Rather than run a candidate who is strong on the issues, they are choosing to run a so-called “strong candidate.” Democrats should not compromise their vision for a better America. They have to realize that, at a time when Americans are desperately looking to move forward, electability by its very nature looks to the past. Democrats in the remaining primary states should vote for the candidate who offers them hope for a better tomorrow. This candidate will be the one who can, and will, beat George W. Bush.
“Electability” is a worry of the media. Health care, jobs, balanced budgets and education are everyone’s concerns. When it comes to these issues, Howard Dean is the man to beat.