The entire Democratic primary battle reminds me of a movie called “The Great White Hype.” In case you’ve never seen it, here is a recap. For many years, blacks fighters have dominated boxing. Unfortunately for their promoters, this did not appeal to white Americans and profits from boxing plummeted. To resolve the situation boxing champion’s manager and hustler Fred Sultan finds the white, “Irish” Terry Conklin to challenge the champion. Not only is Conklin not Irish, but he has never been in a real fight. He is obviously slated to lose. But, as he gets more and more “hyped” by Sultan and his crew, everybody, including some of the very people who engineered his doomed quest, start to believe that Conklin is going to win. However, when the two finally get into the ring Conklin is instantly beaten into a pulp.
Let’s go back one year: in the early 2003 no one paid any attention to the presidential campaign. First of all, it was simply too early for anyone to care. Second of all, there was a much sexier issue on the table: the war in Iraq.
As the grand drama involving weapons inspectors, British intelligence reports and U.N. resolutions unraveled, it made a profound impact on U.S. politics. Hundreds of thousands marched in their unanimous protest against the war. They presented a political force to be reckoned with. Still, besides a couple of flimsy organizations that 99 percent of the people have never heard about, no major candidate stood up to lead this impressive movement. All of the big names including Kerry, Lieberman, Gephardt and Edwards read the polls, saw that most people did in fact support the war, and decided that they were better off supporting it too.
Howard Dean did oppose the war and was thus destined to become “the challenger.” As an anti-war candidate, he was as good as it gets. He was forceful, energetic and eloquent. He used to be a well-loved governor with bipartisan support. Most importantly, in his early stages the media covered this adorably militant “vanity candidate” in overwhelmingly positive tones. Anti-war activists began to flock to him like flies to cow dung. Dean became their great liberal hope.
Conservative elite, the collective “manager-hustler” of our beloved president, noticed Dean as well. Unlike young anti-war protesters, they realized that the great liberal hope is actually the great liberal hype. Sure, Dean is a great speaker. Unfortunately, all he uses his speech for is to yell and criticize the Bush administration. Sure, Dean used to be a well-loved governor. A governor of what state, though? Vermont is very liberal and is hardly representative of the rest of the nation. Conservatives realized that Dean would be a perfect Democrat for Bush to run against. He would make a lot of noise and then spectacularly lose, shifting a bunch of Democratic Senate seats to Republicans and taking away Democrats’ ability to filibuster.
Thus, Dean received substantial support from the right. While the exact numbers are unknown, The New York Times reported many conservatives giving money to the Dean campaign. The whole slew of conservative Op-Ed columnists lined up behind Dr. Dean. Bill Kristol, Jonah Goldberg and William Safire all came out at some point saying that they want to see Dean nominated. Karl Rove even chanted, “Go, Howard Dean!” during the Fourth of July parade. Together with wide-eyed, idealistic college students, conservatives ignited the Dean candidacy.
Once his candidacy took off, conservatives could smile and stand back. The Dean hype began to build upon itself. Dean suddenly found himself awash in great media coverage, generating awesome campaign contributions, generating even more coverage and even more contributions. Even serious politicians like Al Gore and Bill Bradley were deceived. “Believe the hype!” liberals were told — and many of us, including myself, bought into it.
White Terry Conklin went on to face the champion without ever taking part in a real boxing match. Fortunately for us, liberal Howard Dean had to get through the primaries before going to the general election.
Everyone had it all figured out. Radical liberals had their messiah. Conservative Republicans were ready to breeze through the election and save up some money on campaign contributions. The media had their front-runner so that it could finally concentrate on the most important topic of the election season, namely the front-runner’s wife’s wardrobe. Everyone was having a lot fun until they faced the ultimate party-pooper: the Iowa voters.
Iowan Democrats, like most normal people (aka people who do not attend an Ivy League school), began paying serious attention to politics about a week before the caucus. They looked past the endorsements, the fund-raising totals and talking heads with impressively sounding titles and saw Dean’s glaringly obvious unelectability. Thus they gave their votes to presumably more electable John Kerry. New Hampshire voters followed the suit and suddenly the entire Dean machine fell like a house of cards.
Perhaps this experience should serve us a lesson. Money and media attention do not translate into actual votes. Nor do endorsements or presumed inevitability. Lay Democrats do not want someone loud or radical. They simply want someone from their team to be in the White House.