One thing we know for sure coming out of John Kerry’s double-digit trouncing of Howard Dean in this week’s New Hampshire vote is that the left is taking a mighty beating. And much of it is, unfortunately, self-inflicted.
A historical lesson should have been learned from our adversaries in the Christian Coalition: build a powerful, cohesive, agenda-driven, grassroots, voter-mobilization machine that stands on its own and forces the candidates to beg and compete for your attention, and your votes. That’s how you accumulate clout — playing hard to get. Obligating the candidates to pander to you.
By contrast, too much of the left has lined up and laid right down like a bunch of round-heeled hussies, eagerly and shamelessly putting out for any old candidate to come their way. The results have been disastrous, minimizing whatever political pull the left could potentially exercise among the Democrats.
We’re barely two primaries into this crucial campaign but the bungling by the left grows daily.
Let’s start with organized labor — precisely the folks who would be the axis around which any meaningful left-of-center voter coalition would revolve. The bulk of the AFL-CIO — from the Teamsters to the Steelworkers — sealed an early suicide pact with none other than the hapless and hopeless Dick Gephardt.
Sure, Gephardt had a loyal voting record on unions and trade. But will someone please explain to me why in the face of the most pugnaciously anti-union administration in two decades (one that wants to roll back overtime, no less), labor would lash itself to a candidate who never had a chance? Why would it expend millions of dollars in cash and even more in staff time, deploying a thousand organizers into Iowa for weeks at a time, all to temporarily buoy Dick’s doomed last hurrah? Every hoary cliché about Big Labor being a pack of dying dinosaurs seemed confirmed by this gross miscalculation. Labor pushed itself to the political margin by going all out for the loser Gephardt. How much politically stronger the AFL-CIO would be at this very moment if it had stayed aloof from the candidates (especially the listless Dick), spending its millions on pushing its issues, and touching off a bidding war among the contenders for its eventual blessing.
The Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, to their credit, took a more adventurous route than the rest of labor and backed Howard Dean. But as I wrote in these pages last week, the left seems to have invested the Dean candidacy with some sort of mythical righteousness. Given the moral void left in the Democratic Party after a decade of Clintonism, I understand the burning hunger for anything, anybody that promises to restore some courage and cojones to the party. And while Dean seems to me a wholly decent and admirable fellow who spoke out early against the misguided war in Iraq, he’s a most unlikely revolutionary. The near fanaticism of many Dean supporters reflects an honest and heart-felt frustration with a locked-up political system, but the good doctor’s flawed candidacy — even in its best moments — bodes little of the redemption sought by his followers.
Then there’s the Dennis Kucinich campaign. As leader of the Progressive Caucus, the former boy-Mayor of Cleveland has earned the loyalty of a legion of leftists for his bold and sometimes lonesome stands on principle. But anyone who knows Kucinich and likes him — as I do — should have told him as soon as we heard he was mulling a presidential run: “Dennis, Don’t Do It.” In a post-modern era, whatever intangible makes a candidate attractive is something that Dennis ain’t got.
Kucinich is way above his head running for president and his campaign — laced with New Age mumbo-jumbo and still boastful claims about how he’s bound to surge past his usual 1 percent — is a frank embarrassment. In the heat of the Iowa campaign, his office sent around a press memo touting his latest endorsements: the Marijuana Party and an endorsement with an asterisk from Noam Chomsky. In the convoluted appended footnote on the press release, Chomsky explained he wasn’t really endorsing Dennis because, he said, he never endorses in a primary. But, Chomsky added, he would endorse Dennis if he won the nomination! I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything quite so bizarre as that quasi-endorsement in a putative presidential campaign since Larry Flynt briefly rolled into the 1984 contest. “I can and will go all the way to the convention,” Kucinich told CNN right after racking up a total of 3,000 votes in all of New Hampshire. The horror, the horror. Anyone who is a true friend of Dennis ought to call him today and tell him to pull out and concentrate instead on his House re-election campaign.
Some of those on the left who didn’t go off the deep end for Dennis opted for a truly aberrational choice — former General Wesley Clark. Bloviator Michael Moore issued one of his tiresome e-mail directives to his fan base anointing the former NATO commander as the preferred progressive choice. Go figure. If you’ve seen Moore’s amusing but intellectually scrambled Bowling for Columbine, you know that the movie suggests that gun violence at home is directly linked to American foreign policy. The Columbine shootings took place, Moore emphasizes, on what turned out to be the single heaviest day of NATO bombing of Kosovo. That war, of course, was directed by General Clark. Oh well, just a minor contradiction I suppose.
But the Moore love affair with the oddball Wes Clark causes me no pain. The more Moore discredits himself the better. The left deserves political leadership from someone other than a self-promoting clown. (Or a professional race-baiter like Al Sharpton, who can be seen on a 1983 FBI surveillance videotape talking about laundering drug money with former mobster Michael Franzese, a Mafioso-turned-undercover-FBI informant posing as a cocaine dealer.)
All is not lost. Not yet. The strongest institutional voice the left retains in this presidential contest is the struggling Howard Dean campaign. Dean’s presence makes the race a better one, for sure. A prolonged, hard-fought contest between Dean and Kerry and conceivably John Edwards can only benefit the Democratic Party as well as the wider public debate. The campaign can take some unexpected turns as it heads south and west, and Kerry still comes off as a remote stiff, but for the moment Dean is the long shot. If he survives next week’s round of primaries he could find much friendlier territory later in the month in the liberal and union strongholds of Michigan and Wisconsin. Dean could win in either of those states, especially the latter. But I’m no longer sure what difference that might make.
It’s a helluva position for the left to be in, having all of its eggs in the baskets of a couple of erratic candidates. Next time around, let’s do it better. Let’s make them come to us.