Regime Change Movement Picks Up Steam

Last summer, I sat in a hotel room at the Campaign for America's Future gathering in Washington D.C and listened to four presidential candidates -- John Edwards, John Kerry, Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich -- speak in rapid order. At that point, I didn't "have" a candidate, although I knew and admired Kucinich. But the issue already on my mind was electability; who among these candidates could go all the way come next November?

I remember thinking as I listened to Kerry's speech, "OK, this guy is presidential, he's electable. I can live with John Kerry."

The other candidates gave more rousing speeches and had more natural speaking talent, especially Kucinich, who brought the crowd to its feet a dozen times. John Edwards displayed the folksy charm developed in his successful career as a trial lawyer. But I came back to Kerry, who seemed to have the most gravitas -- and perhaps electability.

Much has happened since that June day more than seven months ago. One of the most dynamic insurgent campaigns in recent presidential history, by former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, crashed and burned in the corn fields of Iowa and in the bitter cold last night in New Hampshire. But some things haven't changed; I still don't have a candidate, and I'm thinking about John Kerry. I don't have a candidate because I don't want a "candidate"; I want to see a new president elected, and he can be Anyone But Bush.

For the first time in recent memory, many progressives -- self-styled members of the "regime change movement" -- are aligned with a broad cross-section of the Democratic Party electorate. We can call this alliance the ABBA party -- Anybody But Bush Again. Analysis of voting in Iowa and New Hampshire underscores that electability reigns supreme as the chief overriding issue for many Democratic and independent voters, as it is for me.

The reasons seem clear. George W. Bush and his radical right-wing agenda have traumatized many Americans. The Republican juggernaut threatens to undo much of what Americans have come to count on from their government. The result is a new strain of pragmatism and an unusual moment in American politics. Voters are seeking not the most passionate or progressive, or moderate or anti-war candidate, but rather the one who is most electable, who can stand up to the bullying, the war-mongering, the tax cuts for the wealthy, and the scare tactics that dominate the Bush administration.

As Pradipto Bagchi, 30, a financial analyst from Manchester, NH told the New York Times: "It hurts to vote this way, but I think George Bush has been a disaster, and if my cat had the best change of beating Bush, I'd vote for my cat."

Even the polls show that only 44 percent of the public want to see Bush reelected (even though large majorities expect him to be). It feels a lot like Iran in America, where the forces of reason are fighting the religious fundamentalists, and the deck, at first glance, appears stacked -- in this case because of corporate media's collusion on behalf of the incumbent, which carries with it the expectation of defeat.

This feeling of disempowerment was part of the Dean downfall. Corporate media's coverage of Dean's campaign was clearly unbalanced. The AP reported on Jan. 16 that Dean received significantly more criticism on network newscasts than the other Democratic candidates according to a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs. The study also found that 51 percent of the coverage of Dean was negative, compared to 78 percent of the rest of the Democratic field receiving positive coverage.

The Youth Vote

There is a long history of insurgent presidential candidacies that temporarily caught the wave and then bit the dust long before the nominee was chosen. Gary Hart, Jerry Brown -- particularly Eugene McCarthy's peace quest in 1968 in New Hampshire that sent Lyndon Johnson to the sidelines -- are examples. Insurgencies can make a huge impact, as Dean's may yet. But they can also leave a lot people deeply disappointed.

As Dean's chances for the nomination have shrunk, many are concerned about the huge expectations on the part of tens of thousands of young people who joined his campaign and decided that politics is cool. These are the troops counted on to help expand the electorate among younger voters. Even though they vote at a considerably smaller rate than adults, "the under-25 voter will constitute between 7 and 8% of the total vote in 2004," according to pollster Anna Greenberg.

Hopefully the Deaniacs' insurgent effort will take a lot of credit for energizing the collective political psyche. Dean's in-your-face campaign motivated the other candidates, made them better and more assertive. After Iowa, Michael Moore wrote to Dean campaigners, "I am convinced that the electorate in that state was invigorated by the Dean campaign -- whose entire message was that you can make a difference. Just the fact that you have people thinking this way is a gift you have given to America, a nation where the majority, in the past, have given up and refused to vote. I believe that you and Howard Dean will be credited with waking up a near-dead voting public. Thank you!"

Yet in Iowa, a majority of young voters ended up supporting Kerry and Edwards. Once again, electability trumped popularity. That's why the talented and passionate Dennis Kucinich, despite lots of admiration, doesn't get any votes. It's why Gephardt is on the sidelines, and will likely eventually be joined by Dean and Clark. For Dean, the collective attack by the body establishment -- media, pundits, corporate politicians and his opponents -- took its toll before the first vote was cast.

Anything can still happen as the primaries go south and west and spread across the land. But one has the sense that Iowa and New Hampshire expressed some collective wisdom.

Good For Change?

How is all this good for regime change? First, it suggests the maturity of voters who recognize that getting Bush out of office is paramount. Second, polls in Iowa and New Hampshire indicate that health care and the economy are more important in the national consciousness than the war, terrorism and national security -- areas where Bush still polls relatively well.

Even Iowa anti-war voters supported Kerry more than Dean, even though Kerry voted to authorize the war on Iraq. How could this be? Well, the war is turning out not to be the fundamental litmus test in the primaries, and it won't be in November. More importantly, John Kerry is seen as a critic of Bush's war, and he voted against the authorization of $87 billion for Iraq. For more moderate voters, the undecideds who are now deeply suspicious of Bush, the Kerry path is more like theirs, and in Kerry they sense someone who has stood for peace.

As Harold Myerson wrote in the LA Weekly, Kerry was a war hero AND an anti-war hero. "Kerry ... repeatedly put himself in harm's way, saving his comrades' lives and returning home to become the charismatic leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Wearing his fatigues, he went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, concluding his testimony with a mighty question: 'How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?'"

Twelve Steps

An article I wrote last fall, A 12-Step Program For Regime Change, attracted large traffic to AlterNet, and was reprinted in the Utne Reader. A number of readers wrote to say they were encouraged by the clarity of the concerns and optimism expressed.

One of the key premises of the article was the need to have an independent force capable of registering, educating and mobilizing voters no matter who the nominee; a process that is clearly underway.

Today, at the beginning of primary season, many of the concerns in "12 Steps" are being addressed. Leaders are being strategic; battleground states are the targets, while increasing numbers of people are feeling their strength and dedicating themselves to the tasks ahead. Substantial early resources are being invested in voter mobilization, particularly by strategic progressive donors like George Soros, Peter Lewis, Rob McKay and Rob Glaser, among others.

There has been very little squabbling among progressives, while the independent media, particularly on the Internet, is providing an enormous amount of material that should sink the ship of Bush, if communicated far and wide. And people are even trying to understand how to frame a positive vision and message and not fall into the easy trap of always attacking the conservative message.

Insiders report that the efforts of organizations, especially MoveOn.org, to raise fundamental questions about Bush's character are having an effect. MoveOn's television ads, tested in battleground states and produced with funds raised from their tens of thousands of donors, are having a powerful impact on voters, according to those with access to the follow-up polling results.

In the meantime, according to Washington columnist Mike Lux, Bush's State of the Union address demonstrated that the president and his team are not feeling as confident about the upcoming election as they pretend:

"It was both the most defensive SOTU I have ever seen, and the most nakedly partisan ... choosing the harshly partisan rhetoric you generally see on the campaign trail in October. Bush threw red meat to his supporters by vehemently defending tax cuts and the Iraq War. He threw symbolic bones to his religious right supporters on such earth-shattering topics as promoting abstinence and opposing steroid use by professional athletes. Bush's strategy remains consistent: First, scare the hell out of people; second, show his compassionate conservative side with (mostly unfunded) rhetoric on education, jobs and health care; finally, stoke up his right-wing base with culture war attacks on gays, peaceniks, trial lawyers and liberals."

Increasingly, it seems, this strategy will not work. Bush's base is too small and the anti-Bush base too energized. The ABBA party has a challenging battle ahead, but there is a growing confidence that the Ayatollahs of fundamentalist America can be pushed aside for a more just and inclusive society.

The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and in no way reflect the opinions of AlterNet or the Independent Media Institute, which take no positions in elections.

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