The Anybody-But-Dean Syndrome

CAMBRIDGE -- As the January primaries quickly approach, the Anybody-But-Dean syndrome (ABD) is becoming as infectious as the flu among rival Democrat camps. To prevent a Dean victory in Iowa, millions of dollars worth of attack ads will choke Iowa television screens and mailboxes this month.

The ABD fear is that if Dean defeats Richard Gephardt in Iowa, his likely win in New Hampshire will propel him to the nomination early. But if Dean's momentum is blocked in Iowa, the ABDs think they have a chance to undermine him in later primaries.

The stakes are high for peace and justice activists, including Dennis Kucinich supporters and undecideds, who can tip the balance in the close competition between Dean and Gephardt in Iowa. A de facto Iowa coalition between Dean and Kucinich supporters, even if Kucinich himself stays in the race, would be a victory for the anti-war movement and grassroots activism in the Democratic Party.

On the other hand, if Dean is thwarted in Iowa, it will be a victory for "centrists" based in the party's Washington DC power centers, who supported Bush in Iraq. That would mean demoralization among Dean's 550,000 signed-up volunteers, and also open a space for an increasingly probable Ralph Nader candidacy.

To understand this drama, it is necessary to pause for a crash course in Iowa's caucus rules. They are as complicated as the Bush Administration's blueprint for governing Iraq, but with one difference: Grassroots Iowa Democrats, unlike Iraqis, have real power.

On election night, thousands of voters show up at precincts across the state where they are herded into candidate preference groups. Each of those precincts is accorded a set number of convention delegates based on the Democratic vote in the last statewide election. To be eligible for any delegates, however, a presidential candidate must reach a threshold line of 15 percent of the participants in a local caucus. If Kucinich, for example, has less than 15 percent in a given caucus, his supporters in that caucus room can transfer their support to another candidate. If Dean is at 25 percent versus Gephardt at 24 percent in a given caucus, the Kucinich supporters might determine the winner.

The problem is that Kucinich supporters are likely to oppose Dean more than other Democrats because they feel pre-empted and marginalized by his peace candidacy. They complain that Dean, unlike Kucinich, has not laid out a broader strategy for global peace. They feel slighted when Dean attacks "inside-the-Beltway Democrats" without mentioning Kucinich's early and consistent leadership against the war. The question is whether they can transcend this understandable bitterness or will take the opportunity to inflict payback on Dean.

Dean needs to reach out to the Kucinich campaign, his most natural allies, without pandering. Dean needs to build bridges to the supporters of other candidates who will be blasting him in Iowa. It's a difficult task in the crossfire, but a test of how well Dean can unite and expand the party in the long run.

Who are these ABDs? Do they have a candidate who can win both the nomination and the November election? Do they think they can trash Dean and somehow win over his passionate constituency?

A perceptive article by Ryan Lizza in Nov. 29 issue of The New Republic reduces the Democratic split as "the party of Dean" versus "the party of Clinton." This is an oversimplification, as Lizza himself admits, because it omits unpredictable factors such as the role of Al Gore or Sen. Ted Kennedy should Sen. John Kerry lose in the early primaries. But I have heard similar portrayals of the division by national reporters traveling with the campaigns. One said, "they [the Clinton people] don't want Dean to win because they've got nothing there. They want a candidate who will keep saying good things about the Clintons to set things up for Hillary. It's like Nixon, who sat out 1964 to run in 1968."

Said another source, "They [the Clintons] have a formula for winning, and it's not nominating a governor from Vermont, it's finding a candidate from the South -- the model of Clinton, Gore and before them Jimmy Carter. So it's a candidate like Clark or Edwards." Sen. Joe Lieberman, darling of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), is left hanging in this analysis, although former Clinton operatives like Mandy Grunwald and Mark Penn are embedded in the Lieberman camp.

The most salient ABD claim is that Howard Dean can't win, based on a regression analysis of a mountain of computer data on voter types. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it couldn't detect the rise of Dean from insurgent-outsider to front-runner, or the scale of or the breadth of anti-Iraq sentiment in the country. Since the "best and brightest" consultants were wrong last year in counseling Democratic presidential candidates to stand with Bush on Iraq, they might be wrong now in asserting with pseudo-scientific aplomb that Dean can't beat Bush.

Computers can predict a model candidate on paper but not the spirit of that candidate on the trail. They can analyze the percentage of church-going Christians for Bush but not the likelihood of a worsening Iraqi quagmire during the 2004 election. In any event, the early polls show Bush ahead of all the Democratic contenders by eight to 10 points. So other questions become pertinent in addition to who can win. Which campaign will galvanize the greatest energy against the Second Coming of Bush? Which candidacy will be the most progressive and hard-hitting? Which would be most likely to win over Nader voters? Which Democratic Party do Democrats want to build for the future? Or is this about waiting for Hillary?

Next: Wesley Clark at Harvard.

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