Thursday, December 11, 2003

The Wurlitzer is Being Recalibrated

Bush is, apparently, setting up to fight Dean.

Wondering about strategy? Wonder not:

A day after Al Gore endorsed Dr. Dean, giving the former Vermont governor his strongest claim yet to the role of front-runner for the nomination, Democrats as well as Republicans scrambled on Wednesday to assess and adapt to the changing political landscape. Dr. Dean's Democratic rivals sharpened their attacks on him, even as Republicans — perhaps motivated as much by a desire to guard against complacency in their ranks as by any newfound respect for Dr. Dean's electoral strength — talked of their plans for a tough general election faceoff against him.

One Republican who speaks regularly to White House officials said there was serious thought about pursuing the earliest and most aggressive of the plans under consideration: putting Mr. Bush into full campaign mode soon after he delivers the State of the Union address in late January. In that way, the Republican said, Mr. Bush could get a quick start on defining Dr. Dean as too far to the left for the country before the former Vermont governor can wrap up the primaries and begin trying to move himself toward the political center.
It's actually not a bad strategy- using the primary process against him. In some ways, though, it's contradictory, because the entire reason Dean has pulled ahead is because the primaries aren't really deterministic this year- as this story demonstrates. If he becomes inevitable, Dean can quickly move to the center, possibly before the primaries are even over. Frankly, it wouldn't be too hard for him- the Bushes are running up against a centrist whose biggest "liberal" issue- the War in Iraq- is NOT something they'll want to run on.

(His anti-free trade leanings would also be hideously stupid to attack, considering it'll drive all manner of manufacturing workers into his arms. Which is probably why he has them.)

And on Dean's electability?

Still, Dr. Dean's ability to energize Democrats and potentially attract new voters, while raising large sums of money without the benefit of an established national reputation, has generated some concern within the Bush campaign, where much of the early betting had been on Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri as the most likely nominee. The campaign continues to warn against overconfidence among its supporters by stressing that the 2004 race could be as close as the one in 2000.

"They do not underestimate Dean, because Dean is able to stir the energy in the Democratic party grass roots," said Deal W. Hudson, the editor of Crisis Magazine and an influential religious conservative who is in regular contact with the White House. "That makes him potentially the most formidable of the Democratic nominees."
I think the "Dean can't win" meme is going to evaporate pretty soon. He's neither Goldwater nor Mondale nor McGovern, and the Republicans aren't so stupid at campaigning that they can't recognize a potential anti-Reagan when they see him.

This new wariness may also partially be for positioning reasons. They want to ensure that they get turnout and hard money donations when it counts, which will be important when fighting the Deaniacs. They also certainly don't want Bush to look like he's failing, or that Dean has momentum, which is what "Bush is inevitable" could lead to when the true partisan makeup of the country shows its face.

Last point I want to bring up, because it's a good one:

But the Republican National Committee and the Bush campaign are intensively reviewing their opposition research on Dr. Dean. The party is conducting polling not just on how Mr. Bush would match up against Dr. Dean but also on what effects Dr. Dean, as his party's presidential nominee, would have on other races, especially for Senate seats.
This is important, because one key Bush strategy would be to split the Democrats against themselves. It would be both easy and smart to employ the Wurlitzer not just against voters, but against politicians, creating the impression that backing Dean will mean that they're seen as just as liberal as he is. That would doom both- voters would go anti-Democratic anyway if they saw the Dems as soft on Terror (or whatever), and Dean's isolation would seriously hurt him.

I'm almost certain, however, that this is why Dean has been reaching out to candidates with what really matters: the wallets of his followers. The Wurlitzer can only provide a false "centrist" imprimatur for one's campaign- Scaife isn't going to bankroll a Democrat, after all. While that's valuable, money is far more valuable, and a ton of small hard money donations (with the possibility of more to come) is more valuable still. The most important reason why Dean has been so successful is because of the Dean machine's ability to raise money and gain rabid followers over the Internet. As we've seen, both can be as easily re-aimed as the Wurlitzer. Dean's followers genuinely feel like they're doing something useful and important by aiding Dean and the Democrats, and Dean employs a simple but profound truth: people might not be willing to spend $2000 at a time, but they'll spend $20 without a second thought, and do it multiple times.

(Yes, Bush will use this too. He's still behind the curve.)

In any case, this was to be expected, and I'm still convinced that win or lose, Dean's campaign is going to change politics. If it is just a rallying cry like Goldwater was then that'll be one thing, but I am seriously wondering if the Democrats have stumbled upon their very own Reagan. The only thing left is to make him more comfortable on television, and that isn't that hard a job nowadays.

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