The Weekly Standard’s Christopher Caldwell raises the increasingly relevant question of whether Howard Dean is electable. Caldwell concludes that Dean is and, indeed, that “there is no concrete political reason why Dean should be less electable than any of his rivals.”
I agree with Caldwell on the first point. Presidential elections are always mostly about the incumbent president, and this is especially when that incumbent is his party’s nominee. This far away from the election, with President Bush facing so many potential pitfalls, it would be foolish to say that anyone the Democrats realistically might nominate is not electable.
I disagree, though, with the claim that Dean is as electable as all of his rivals. Recent history confirms what common sense suggests — that even when voters are ready for a change, they look carefully at the opposition candidate and tend to shy away from candidates with whom they are not familiar. In 1976, voters were pretty sure they wanted a change, but Gerald Ford closed a huge gap in the polls to nearly defeat Jimmy Carter after voters finally scrutinized the Peanut Farmer shortly before election day. In 2000, under similar circumstances, Al Gore closed a substantial gap to win a plurality of the popular vote. And even in 1992, President Bush made up ground against Bill Clinton in the final weeks of the campaign, when voters had second thoughts about Slick Willie.
This history indicates that, even if the current President Bush falters, voters will not discard him lightly in favor of another obscure governor. In fact, voters are less likely to discard an incumbent this time around than they were in 1976, 1992, or 2000 because of the war on terrorism. If the Democrats were to nominate Gephardt or Lieberman (which, it seems, they will not), voters would be relatively comfortable with changing leaders. If they were to nominate Kerry, voters would not be as comfortable, but might be somewhat reassured by Kerry’s military record, his years on the national scene, and his demeanor. Dean has none of this to fall back on. Instead, he has a string of strident and fairly extreme pronouncements on key foreign policy matters that can only make swing voters nervous. The fact that he has balanced budgets and opposed gun control will have little bearing on whether voters are likely to trust him to handle the kinds of issues America now faces.
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