TCS Daily

Dr. Death Wish?

By Ilya Shapiro - February 15, 2005 12:00 AM

So the Democrats have chosen Howard Dean to be their fearless leader for the foreseeable future. This is no token chairmanship, as the party with minority status in both houses of Congress and in the statehouses has no obvious spokesman and no naturally compelling figure around whom to rally. A party that has had anachronistic hotheads like Barbara Boxer and Ted Kennedy become its public face in recent weeks, one whose House leader is facing discontent on her left flank from her San Francisco constituents.

Republicans, naturally, are ecstatic. Where the National Review once mockingly pleaded, "Please, Nominate This Man," commentators on its blog, The Corner, now with gleeful seriousness urged the Democrats to "select" him. Not only will Howard Dean turn off swing voters -- NASCAR dads, security moms, exurbanites, working-class Catholics -- but his acerbic and aloof managerial "style" seems exactly contrary to that needed for a party-builder-in-chief.

Well, yes, but the problem is deeper than that. The release of the 2004 National Exit Poll (NEP) raw data reveals troubling signs for the Dems -- and they have nothing to do with the much-hyped (but pretty much beside the point) discussion of Red State religious types having more babies and liberals being less than competitive in the outlying suburbs of major cities. The NEP, sponsored by the networks and the AP and conducted by Edison/Mitofsky, shows that the key to understanding the emerging Republican majority is, as Ruy Teixeira of the (quixotically named) Emerging Democratic Majority blog put it, "it's the white working class, stupid."

That is, while Al Gore lost white voters with less than a college degree by 17 points, John Kerry managed to fall 23 points behind (yet only doing one point worse among white college grads). Perhaps more astonishingly, George Bush turned a seven point lead over Gore among white working class women into an 18 point rout over Kerry. (His increase was again one point among working class men.) And breaking that demographic down further, the President more than doubled his margin among married white working class women (62% of the total), to 31 points, while reducing the Democrat lead among singles from 15 to two.

Moreover, on the question of whom they trust to handle the economy -- let alone on whom they trust to handle terrorism -- Bush beat Kerry 55-39 among the white working class (men and women). Thomas Frank, author of What's the Matter with Kansas? -- which expressed the Left's frustration over working class Americans' purported penchant to vote against their own economic interests -- must be crying in his Chardonnay! (Nevermind that after 1936, Kansans have only punched the Democratic ticket once, in the Johnson landslide of 1964.)

Which brings us back to Howard Dean, the man who famously broke with his church over a bike path. Upon winning the chairmanship, the erstwhile "moderate governor" Dean declared that the moment marked "the reemergence of the Democratic Party" in that the so-called party of Jefferson would "actually begin fighting for what we believe: fiscally responsible, socially progressive values."

But is it fiscally responsible to demand even more spending than President Bush's string of bloated budgets already provides? Or to pronounce all serious proposals to reform Social Security that do not involve raising payroll taxes "dead on arrival"? Or, better yet, to call investing retirement savings in mutual funds "a gamble," when this is what anyone with half a brain does if he wants to get a return that actually beats inflation -- and when America's economic dynamism rests on the strength of its capital markets?

As for being socially "progressive" -- whether that code stands for being pro-abortion, pro-gay-marriage, pro-affirmative action, anti-gun, or any number of stances that pander to the shrill interest groups that constitute the Democratic base -- I'm just not sure how that'll play in Kansas, Iowa, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, West Virginia, Ohio or any number of states dominated by the white working class.

Now, the Democrats may be wrong on a whole host of policy and cultural issues, but they can't be completely clueless about their own future. (Can they?) There are valid reasons for which Dean makes an attractive DNC chairman even if he isn't remotely close to being a good presidential candidate. The former governor is an energizing figure who will surely bring fresh ideas and new blood to the table -- and it will be up to the voters (rather than the derided "consultants") to decide whether these ideas are sensible. His ascension also paves the way for a centrist in the Clinton mold to paint herself as the moderate, reasonable figure between the Republican and Deaniac extremes -- as James Pinkerton pointed out in this space on Friday.

Howard Dean will have a hard time making hay for the donkeys among the white working class. As someone who knows a little about both building and mismanaging popular coalitions opined, "I think if [Democrats] have a true death wish, he'd be the perfect guy to go with." It's hard to disagree with Newt Gingrich on that.

Ilya Shapiro is a lawyer and writer living in Washington, D.C. He last wrote for TCS about a backhanded compliment to Amtrak.



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