Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Future of Dean-Speak

I don’t think Howard Dean gets the credit (or is it the blame?) he deserves for shaping the way we practice politics. There’s no denying that he’s spoken for many liberals over the last six or seven years. In 2003, he staked a credible claim to being the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party’s liberal wing only to be rejected by the party’s primary voters in favor of another liberal who was known to be less inspiring but thought to be more electable. After John Kerry’s dispiriting loss in the 2004 general election, however, Dean’s influence over liberal politics grew by leaps and bounds even as his presidential prospects receded.

Dean Liberals soon became the activist core of today’s liberal community and Dean-Speak its authentic voice. Granted, we haven’t really heard much from Dean since he stepped down from his post atop the Democratic National Committee. But even as he fades from view, his influence is everywhere, so much a part of today’s political landscape that we hardly notice it.

One way to measure Dean’s influence is to contrast the acerbic rhetoric that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi now routinely employ with the measured words we used to hear from their predecessors, Tom Daschle or Dick Gephardt. One wicked pleasure of Democratic politics that never gets old is hearing a tin-eared John Kerry Dean-Speaking through his Brahmin accent. Granted, Dean-Speak isn’t part of Obama’s political brand, but he has other people, like Robert Gibbs, to do his Dean-Speaking for him. You’d never have heard the sorts of things that Gibbs regularly says from the podium during the daily White House briefing coming from, say, Mike McCurry when he was speaking for the Clinton administration.

The essence of Dean-Speak is twofold.

First, it consists in saying things publicly that liberals only used to say privately to each other over a couple of beers. Before we adjusted our expectations to the political climate Dean helped create, who would have imagined a leader of the national Democratic Party saying: “I hate Republicans and everything they stand for”? Dean’s unconcealed contempt for a sitting president while troops were engaged overseas embarrassed the Democratic establishment when he first put it on display during the 2004 presidential primaries. By the time the candidates got to Iowa, however, the willingness to say such things publicly had become an emblem of liberal authenticity. (It’s no accident that the Deaniac movement sprouted up on the internet, a medium that dissolves the distinction between informal private utterances and formal statements designed for public consumption.)

Second, Dean-Speak appropriates the moral rhetoric that liberals developed in response to the real outrages of an earlier time, like Vietnam, Jim Crow and Watergate, for everyday use against Republicans. So long as Bush occupied the Oval Office, Dean-Speakers never stopped describing every projection of American power as an imperialistic imposition, every departure from liberal received wisdom about race relations was a racist subterfuge and every exposure of a governmental secret as evidence of an impeachable offense. When a united Republican congressional caucus opposed the Obama agenda in 2009, a chorus of Dean-Speakers complained that they were impugning the legitimacy of the Obama presidency. The point of Dean-Speak isn’t to score quotidian political points, but to wipe away the stain of Republican usurpations. A cynic might say that Dean-Speak's prevalence showed that liberals had come to care more and more and less and less.

The times, however, may be changing. The best evidence that they are is that Howard Dean, of all people, now occasionally steps back onto the public stage to counsel Democrats and liberals to tone down their rhetoric, as he did with respect to the Ground Zero mosque. We can expect to see more evidence about the future of Dean-Speak in the electoral fate of Florida congressman Alan Grayson. He’s not particularly noteworthy for his political positions—he’s just another reliable congressional vote for the Pelosi agenda. But Grayson has no peer when it comes to Dean-Speaking.

Here’s Tim Fernholz describing the psychological investment a lot of liberals have in Grayson’s political survival (my emphasis):
“Today, though, we have Alan Grayson, every progressive's favorite House member, whose unabashed progressivism has made him something of a prophetic voice in the Democratic Party, unafraid to mince words with his own leadership or Republicans where progressive values are concerned. Progressive activists point to him as an example for equivocating Democrats: If you run ads like this, confront Republicans like this, and generally don't beat around the bush, you can win, even in a Republican District -- thanks to his national profile, Grayson has been able to raise more than 10 times as much money as his opponent, $3.7 million to $313,000.

“But now the only independent poll of the race has come out, Grayson is down seven points. This is only one poll, so you really can't draw any conclusions from it; Grayson's internal polling has him enjoying a 13-point lead. Regardless of the outcome, this race will be a bellwether in the internal debate among Democrats; a big defeat for Grayson will be seen as a sign that some concessions to the moderate and conservative electorate are necessary for Democrats to win in mixed districts, while a close loss (this is a terrible climate for any Democrat, after all) or a win will be a vindication for progressives who want, as Grayson's slogan puts it, "Courage. Truth. Guts."
You might have thought that a serious liberal like Fernholz would be concerned that Grayson’s bombast had cost the Democratic Party a vote it can’t afford to lose—just as conservatives complain that Christine O’Donnell’s flakiness will cost Republicans a Delaware Senate seat. It says something about the present state of liberalism that the thought doesn’t cross Fernholz’s mind. In his view, it’s precisely the bombast that makes Grayson “every progressive's favorite House member.”


Anonymous said...

I think you're giving Dean too much credit/blame. Remember what conservatives said about Clinton?

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