As it enters the presidential primary season, the Democratic Party is angry. Incensed by an administration that has proved much more conservative than candidate George W. Bush promised to be in 2000 and still livid over how the 2000 election was decided, most Democrats seem to be letting their passion set the tone for this year’s political process.
Unfortunately for the party, that is a good way to lose.
Howard Dean is the embodiment of this development. A cordial man in person and a pragmatic governor when leading Vermont, he has based his front-runner campaign largely on strong, often derisive opposition to Mr. Bush’s past and current Iraq policy.
But it is close to a rule of presidential politics that angry candidates don’t win elections. They tend to come across as unlikable, and Americans want to like their presidents.
Recall the common line about Mr. Bush back in 2000 – that he might not have been as smart or well prepared for the presidency as Al Gore, but he would be a better guy to share a car ride with. And Mr. Bush won, despite the fact that Mr. Gore was the vice president during a time of strong national economic performance.
Indeed, the presidential candidate who has come across as more likable has won every election of the last quarter-century. Bill Clinton, despite his many flaws, was telegenic and appealing to most Americans as a campaigner. In 1988, George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis, who by election time was seen as diffident and a bit arrogant by much of the population (fairly or not). Walter Mondale may have been as nice as Ronald Reagan, but he couldn’t compete with the latter’s star appeal – just as Jimmy Carter couldn’t four years before.
There is a role for hard-hitting politics in presidential campaigns, to be sure. But when the candidates themselves are the principal purveyors of negative messages, and it affects their affability in the public eye, they are likely to lose.
The case study here is Bob Dole, a very popular man among those who know him but seen as the dean of darkness by much of the general electorate. There are two main reasons for that unfair perception: Mr. Dole’s role as hatchet man in the 1976 presidential campaign, when he was the vice-presidential nominee, and Mr. Dole’s personal association with a Newt Gingrich revolution gone too far (due to his role as a Senate leader) when he was himself the Republican nominee in 1996.
Many Dean supporters accept that their candidate can be feisty and at times divisive. But they argue that he has energized and inspired the Democratic base in a way that will greatly increase turnout among party members.
That seems doubtful. It is impressive that the Dean campaign has created a few hundred thousand inspired and Internet-linked supporters. But they constitute less than 1 percent of the number of people who voted for president in 2000. The fact that Mr. Dean does well with this group says little about how the broader voting-age population will behave in response to his message.
Indeed, there are good reasons to think Mr. Dean could peter out even among Democrats. The modern masters of presidential politics, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Clinton, voiced broad and inspired visions of the future to appeal to partisans, independents and even political opponents. Mr. Dean may be capable of such a vision. But in his anger over Iraq, he is failing to articulate it.
The left-most third of the Democratic Party that is getting ready to nominate him for president doesn’t seem to care right now. But those Democrats will in November when, given the path they are on, their only accomplishment will have been to hand Mr. Bush another term as president.