Once he became the front-runner in the race for his party’s nomination, rivals argued that his politics were outmoded and extremist. With a crowded field of contenders vying to challenge an incumbent president, party leaders and rank-and-file voters debated whether the former governor was electable. More moderate candidates presented themselves as the centrist alternative to an ideologue destined to bring his party to electoral disaster.
Howard Dean? No — Ronald Reagan. And while comparing Dean with the Gipper is unlikely to earn a favorable reaction from either politician’s supporters, the analogy illustrates the perils of engaging in a debate about “electability” so long before a presidential election. As the Reagan example demonstrates, arguments over whether a candidate can win 13 months before an election are meaningless, distracting and ultimately counterproductive.
Given the level of outright animosity many Democrats feel towards the Bush administration, it is unsurprising that the issue of electability has become so important. These Democrats are willing to accept a candidate — in many cases, any candidate — who can prevent four more years of the Bush White House. In this atmosphere, a candidate who cannot convince Democrats that he can beat Bush has no chance of winning the nomination.
Dean — because of his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq — has been most frequently criticized as “unelectable,” but he is not the only candidate to face this charge. Depending on who you ask, Kerry is too indecisive, Lieberman is too bland, Edwards is too young, Clark is too politically inexperienced, and so forth. Pick any candidate and it is easy to find some flaw that makes him seem unelectable.
But making judgments about which candidate could beat Bush over a year before the election requires a remarkable amount of foresight at a time when predicting the future is so difficult. Witness national polls in recent months, as President Bush’s approval ratings have dropped over 20 percent in half a year. Or, alternatively, ask yourself how many people last October expected Dean to be a viable candidate, let alone a front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination. Without knowing whether the economy will recover or Iraq will be stabilized, for example, it is nearly impossible to say who would be best positioned to win.
In addition, while political junkies thrive on debate over electability, the issue does little to attract the average voter. (You don’t see too many campaign slogans like this: “Vote Smith — He’s electable!”) Candidates like Reagan or Dean who burst onto the national scene generate excitement precisely because they defy the conventional wisdom about who can be elected.
Dean’s rivals were initially slow to learn this lesson. When they dismissed Dean as unelectable, Dean used it to his advantage, presenting himself as the alternative to a group of candidates he dismissed as “Bush Lite.” But when other candidates started challenging Dean’s ideas and his record — on everything from the Middle East to Medicare — the criticisms began to stick.
But arguing over electability is not just bad because it is unproductive — it also shifts the focus away from real issues. Many Democrats can give you their opinion on which presidential hopeful they think can win, but few could distinguish between their health care plans — even though those plans have been the centerpiece of almost every campaign. Candidates have criticized each other and the president over the war in Iraq, but can anybody say where the Democratic Party actually stands on foreign policy?
As a result, the electability debate has become a way to argue about ideas without saying things in the open. It is no coincidence that the very people who say Dean is unelectable — the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, for example — also disagree with his positions on national security and the Bush tax cuts. Dean, on the other hand, has dismissed his rivals as unable to challenge Bush primarily because he thinks they are wrong about foreign policy.
But candidates will not win because they effectively present their rivals as unelectable — they must also convince Americans that their ideas are right. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, like Reagan, had qualities that made them seem unelectable. But all three ran with a clear sense of what they stood for, whether or not they made good on those promises once they entered the White House. And Americans liked these ideas — whether Clinton’s “New Democrat” platform or Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” — enough to ignore any weaknesses the candidates themselves had.
That should be the lesson for today’s candidates: Presidents are not born electable, they make themselves electable.
Jacob Leibenluft is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College.