Friday, July 6, 2007

Anything but the E-word: a Political Cautionary Tale

Just when you thought it was safe to support a presidential candidate based upon irrational factors such as qualifications, job experience, shared ideologies and values, the E-word reared its divisive little head. No, I’m not talking about evil or exit polls, but something far more dangerous to the electoral psyche: electability. There, I said it, but out of fear of saying it again, thus feeding its power, I will not say it again.

During the 2004 presidential election, the E-word managed to single-handedly destroy Democratic voters and their ability to think for themselves. And now, four years later, the political tables have turned as the E-word has seeped its way into GOP waters. As the second-quarter filing deadline neared last week, U.S. Sen. John McCain’s campaign manager sent out an e-mail soliciting donations from supporters, providing them with one reason to support McCain: "John McCain is the only candidate who can defeat Hillary Clinton.” Campaign manager Terry Nelson helped drive home this fear at the end of the message: “Please also pass this message along to your friends and family to remind them of the stakes in this election.” I assume by stakes he meant Clinton winning the nomination.

I imagine McCain’s rivals might have other ideas about this, not to mention Clinton’s Democratic rivals. Nonetheless, McCain’s stoking of the GOP base’s “Anybody but Hillary” fire is reminiscent of the “Anybody but Bush” mental quagmire that ensnared the Democrats in 2004, which ultimately devoured their chances of winning when they nominated Mr. Electable, John Kerry, who wasn’t so electable after all.

The question is how, when and why did the E-word pop into presidential politics. The short answers are Karl Rove, 2003, and to help get George W. Bush re-elected. I cannot prove that Rove was the mastermind behind injecting the E-word into the Democrats' camp, but it has the makings of a great theory in the mystical realm of political science.

Granted, I don’t have a well-financed think tank to gather selective evidence and conduct polls guaranteed to prove my theory, but I do have a hunch. And the last time I checked, hunches were free, unless they’re espoused by political consultants, who get paid well to be wrong. Just ask Bob Shrum, the Democrats' consultant whose abysmal 0-7 track record has yet to wield a winning presidential candidate, including his latest casualty, John Kerry. Besides, Rove plays a great Wizard of D.C., regardless of what levers he does or does not pull behind the political curtain.

Just before the 2004 Iowa Caucuses, the Democrats had been stricken with fear and had already succumbed to the “Anybody but Bush” mentality. The E-word consumed all of the other issues as the Democrats faced an identity crisis. Consequently, a number of Iowans went to the caucuses and voted for Kerry, despite the fact he was not their number one choice. I lost count of the number of times I heard voter say to me, “I really want ‘your preferred candidate here’ to win, but I think John Kerry has the best chance of beating Bush.” (Rove’s sinister laugh here as he pulls the E-word lever down.)

After caucus night, I put my hypothesis to the test when I attended to the 2nd District Democratic convention in southern Iowa. Throughout the day, I asked as many Kerry delegates as I could to give me three reasons why they or I should vote for Kerry. Most of Kerry’s supporters responded like robots, as if they had been transformed into a Rovian Stepford Voter: “Must beat Bush…Must beat Bush.” Any signs of reason had been replaced by vacant stares. It was at this point I knew there was something more to the E-word.

Regardless of the E-word’s origins, the fact remains that it did become an integral part of the voter psyche, handicapping Democrats as they raced to the middle and tried to go toe-to-toe with Republicans on their own turf. Instead of focusing on why their nominee should win the presidency, the Democrats’ strategy was to focus on why the GOP nominee should not win.

And now, with less than six months remaining until the Iowa Caucuses, the E-word has manifested in the GOP who, like the Democrats in ’04, are facing an identity crisis as they search for a candidate. Without a clear Democratic nominee, the Republican Party is shoring up its base by setting its sights on defeating the presumed front-runner, Clinton. Democrats aren’t immune to this as presidential hopefuls gear up for winning the party nomination. John Edwards, an E-word casualty in ’04, has already dropped the E-word in Iowa, proclaiming he is the best candidate positioned to win swing states and the general election.

The best way to eradicate the E-word from public political discourse is for voters to stop listening to the exterior voices and to pay attention to the voices inside their own heads. Granted, this is no easy task when the media keep perpetuating the presidential horse race with a bullhorn and pundits handicap the candidates, prognosticating like college football analysts.

In a society that usually champions underdogs, we’re quick to dismiss second- and third-tier presidential candidates, and are willing to sacrifice idealism for pragmatism. But who knows, maybe one day the Stepford Voters will be reprogrammed to think and speak for themselves: “Must vote conscience…Must vote conscience.”

Until then, I think I’ll adopt the “Anybody but me” mindset to help me decide whom I’ll vote for on the night of the Iowa Caucuses.

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"