Undecided in a deciding world

It looks like it will be a Kerry/Edwards ticket for the Democrats this year and let’s hope they can beat Bush—I’ll do everything I can to help, because Bush has to be beaten. But when I go to the Washington state caucus this Saturday, I’ll be urging my precinct to send uncommitted delegates to the county convention, because, at this point, the real question is how much we voters can make our voices heard in this campaign when it comes to setting the Democratic party platform. We need healthcare reform, a restoration of education based on equity and opportunity with radical reform of the local and national funding of schools, we need absolute assurances of our civil liberties, an economic platform that emphasizes job and small business formation. An uncommitted delegate is in the position to demand attention from the rest of the party, even if for only a moment, before votes are cast at a convention.

Howard Dean had stood for some of this, but I’ve lost faith in the Dean campaign for three reasons:

First, Dean grossly underestimated the role voters want to play in this campaign and we hear it each time he urges people to “join me” or “join us” to create institutional change. Voters want to lead this change, not follow. The “I have a scream speech” showed that he was willing to ignore most of America; it is the fact that he didn’t turn his attention to the national audience when he had it—when he could speak to ordinary Americans—that betrays a failure of imagination.

Second, the Dean campaign may have done an extraordinary job raising money, but they spent it profligately and irresponsibly. Dean tonight acknowledged that his campaign has spent more than $40 million of the $42 million it has raised. An awful lot went to ads placed in Iowa and New Hampshire, with as much as 15 percent of the money flowing into the coffers of Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi’s consulting firm, and unusually large amounts spent on consultants and staff. That means that actual volunteering accounted for less than the normal percentage of the work being done, in stark contrast to the mission statement of the campaign.

That last statement may sound like an illogical leap, because we don’t know the value of volunteer work in the Dean campaign. However, if he spent $40 million and had unprecedented support from volunteers (which, in the technology area of the campaign is absolutely the case, though in the field it isn’t clear that Dean had anymore people canvassing or driving folks to the polls), then his campaign did the worst job imaginable in converting those resources into votes. We have to assume that the money was the main resource available, since volunteers bring voters to the poll. Either that, or the Dean camp is really bad at grassroots politics. One way or the other, that’s not the makings of an administration I can count on. Maybe Joe Trippi’s experience in the technology business during the bubble years made him think this is the way you run a business, but it is not. Nor is profligacy a foundation for a populist campaign.

Third, Governor Dean is blaming everyone within pointing distance for the failure of the campaign, including “the Establishment,” the media and the attacks by his Democratic competitors. I heard him do it twice today on local radio when he was in Washington campaigning. In reality, a campaign’s results are the fruit of its labor and leader. He made the boneheaded decision to give a pep talk in front of a national audience. He made the decision to convert his campaign from an insurgency into a coronation by shifting to an endorsements-based strategy when endorsements mean almost nothing to voters (except endorsements by organizations, of which Dean has his share, but only a share). He chooses to blame others and bring a Washington insider into the campaign while decrying Washington insiders—and, in fact, from what I hear, Roy Neel, the new campaign manager who was Al Gore’s chief of staff, has made things run more smoothly and responsively. Nevertheless, Howard Dean is ready to blame everyone but himself for his failure to connect with voters and that’s not what I want in a president.

So, that’s the way it is with this Democrat on February 3, 2004. Undecided on the ticket, certain to vote against Bush in 2004.

Author: Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran entrepreneur, journalist and business model hacker. He operates this site, which is a collection of the blogs he's published over the years, as well as an archive of his professional publishing record. As always, this is a work in progress. Such is life.

9 thoughts on “Undecided in a deciding world”

  1. Changed Perspective: It’s Not About Howard Dean

    Yesterday I posted comments about my continued support for Howard Dean, but I’ve been thinking about those comments, and realizing that it’s not Dean I support so much as the approach to “greater democracy” that his campaign has represented for…

  2. I think your criticisms of Dean and Trippi are valid. I am aghast at how they spent money, and they over-saturated Iowa big time–though a bunch of signs in South Carolina would have done a lot of good.

    I liked the campaign, but I also like the candidate too.

    Dean has shown himself to be fiscally prudent in VT. Listening to deficit projections I am more and more concerned about this. He is also, in my view, the only candidate who will be able to tackle healthcare.

    For Seniors it’s just an entitlement issue. For everyone else it’s an infrastructure/ economic development issue.

    Kerry is a phony.

    Dean was never God, but who would you rather have? I’m seriously considering voting 3rd party if Kerry gets the nomination.

  3. Abby, I think some people have elevated Howard Dean not to godhood, but a kind of canonized populist, which I am not convinced he is. If he was a populist, he’d be far more concerned with changing people’s minds than reciting the same points he’s been making since last summer. I don’t need God or even a saint in the White House. In fact, I’ll work against any candidate who claims either of those pedigrees.

    While Kerry is a money politician, he has the virtue of having come back from Vietnam and fighting the war publicly. That’s a far more supportable position for campaigning against Bush than any other candidate except, maybe Wesley Clark.

    On healthcare and education and other domestic issues, I have studied all the candidates’ positions and cannot say that anyone, even Dean, has given me many details about how they would accomplish what they say they will do. As Nicholas Kristof said in the New York Times today: “Compared with Mr. Bush, John Kerry and most other Democratic presidential candidates are paragons of responsibility

  4. I live in DC which will go Democratic no matter what. So I could vote for Bush, and it wouldn’t do anything.

    I just can’t take anything John Kerry says seriously. I mean I have to mute the TV when he’s on.

    I’m not thinking well enough now to write anything worth reading, but I did see Jo Biden grinning on Charlie Rose, and I wanted to throw something at the TV.

    Voting fro someone, because it seems inevitable that he’ll win just seems dumb. Voting uncommitted just means that you’re leaving the decision up to others.

    By all means, support the nominee, but why did you support Dean in the first place. I liked his John Winthrop rhetoric–it was clean and honest, but I’m a Yankee–and I liked his success by six inititiative. But mostly, I think healthcare is in crisis, and we need to rethink employer based coverage. Dean won me over with “let’s get everyone in, and then we can reform it.”

    Clark would be a distant second. Basically, I can not wholeheartedly support anyone who voted for the PATRIOT Act. Look, with a name like that they should have known something was up. Criticizing it now doesn’t substitute for reading the bill they voted on. Landrieu of Louisiana abstained, and I don’t know anything else about her. Russ Feingold dissented, and he is the only person in the US Senate whom I can honestly respect at this point.

    I hope you’ll stick with Dean, but otherwise, please tell me what you prefer in Clark, Edwards or Kerry.

    I’ll write more later when I’m more coherent.

  5. On the contrary, sending an uncommitted delegate to a convention increases the influence a precinct caucus has in the nominating process. The delegate can ask for something for their vote or hold the for a candidate

  6. It took me till November to commit to Dean and I did so for many reasons. The inclusiveness of his campaign approach and his fluidity in handling early attacks eventually convinced me.

    Pursuing the endorsements finally got the political class and corporate media to recognize him as a guy who’d achieved mainstream status, so that didn’t bother me, either.

    However, when the Dems piled on him hard in late December, I saw many low blows struck, including those done by Sharpton, Kerry and Edwards, initially. Only Braun and Clark demonstrated class during that time.

    But yeah, while Gep and Dean went at it, the others backed out of the fray while Dean developed a tunnelvision I had not seen before. Yet ultimately, my critique is of two weeks badly run in Iowa. The scream didn’t strike me as a campaign-killer and he responded with grace and humor acknowledging that minor misstep.

    So I’m left with three criticisms: the mismanagement of funds (though remember, he was the only guy really mounting a 50 state campaign), the two weeks he went so negative in Iowa, and his inability to get off the Iraq issue and onto healthcare and jobs, which exit polls repeatedly have shown to be uppermost issues and should be Dean’s natural forte.

    Where I differ from your conclusions though is from my understanding of Democratic inertia. Dean’s the only guy besides Kerry with a substantive body of political achievement, and records matter to me. If Kerry wraps this up too fast, I fear the momentum of aggressive campaigning will slide to a standstill.

    I want Dean in there lighting fires for another month or two even if he doesn’t win. He earned my support for putting more life into the Dems than I’ve seen since Jerry Brown and Jesse Jackson provided a decade ago. If he and Neel can’t reshape the message to be more responsive to the public quickly, he’ll quickly be gone, but for now, I’d grant him just a little leeway for all the things he got right for the past year.

    Of course, being an Oregonian, I can’t do much but I intend to cross the Columbia and do what I can to encourage you Washingtonians to grant him a chance to see if he can listen and regain his footing. Win or lose, I’m convinced the Dems need him in this race a bit longer because most of the successful messages the others are delivering were copied from the Dean playbook and few of the others have displayed the imagination that came from Dean and the grassroots he inspired.

  7. I was one of those people who went to Iowa to support Dean. While I was there I saw three things:

    – Gephardt committing what others have called a “murder-suicide” of mythic proportions. He decided to take down the front-runner or die trying. His ads were truly toxic (of the when did you stop beating your wife variety).

    – The other nice candidates, especially Kerry (but also Edwards) engaging in the most amazing behind-the-scenes nasty techniques to thwart the campaign. Removing other candidate’s literature from voters’ doors and mailboxes, and push-polling (reported by voters during canvassing) were just the ones I heard about or witnessed personally. Ick.

    But we are all adults and politics is a contact sport. These guys were just playing the sort of hardball Bush played in Florida in 2000. The main problem, I think, was:

    – Missteps by a highly enthusiastic but inexperienced staff on the ground trying to manage an overwhelming number of volunteers and media.

    I stood twenty feet away listening to Dean (or trying to, given the noise level) give his speech. I went back to my hotel and did two things: sent him another $100, and wrote letters begging the campaign to replace enthusiasm with experience. I was happy to see they did. It may have been too late, but that’s what happens when you think a blog replaces real person-to-person contact and a bunch of college kids working cheap can replace professionals.

    As for blowing the $40 million. I personally contributed quite a bit to the campaign and I saw where it was spent: on TV ads, 4-color brochures, and get out the vote campaigns. The TV ads were terrible, either really negative or really bland. But if you have five other candidates running ads saying ‘Dean sucks,’ sooner or later, you have to fire back. The campaign strategy was to basically bet the farm on the two early states, while spending moderate amount on the downstream areas. All the other campaigns did the same thing. Most went heavily into debt. Dean didn’t. He spent only what he had. That’s where the fiscal prudence kicked in. He didn’t borrow against future earnings which is what EVERYONE else did. He overspent money on ads because he needed to counteract the negative impression being put out against him. He wasn’t running against a single opponent. He was running against five who attacked him daily.

    I’m still voting for Dean. The reason is not because of electability, a bogus amplified scream, or money (which is still pouring in, BTW), but because on issues that matter to me: healthcare, economy, and war, I agree with him and see a track record. These are the same reasons I settled on him last March and nothing I’ve seen has changed that. I have looked at the other candidates too and I don’t see them offering any credible plans other than focus-group tested pablum or the old ‘promise everything to everyone.’ How Kerry or Edwards can stand there in front of Bush and criticize him on ANY of these issues when they voted for his positions is beyond me.

  8. Voices at the Crash Site Say the Frontrunner Was Never Ahead

    The Howard Dean crash site has been visited a lot already. Writers on the Net are starting to struggle over their interpretations, including the role of the Net in Dean’s crash. But the press suffered a crash too. Where do we locate that site?

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