Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

New England Verities

Work is the curse of the blogging class.

But work has let up a bit in time to note that the media is almost universally assigning a significance to the New Hampshire primary that is, in my opinion, completely unjustified. And the consequences of that behavior seem poised to become even more embarrassing to the media.

Media blindness to New Hampshire's provincialism has not always been the case. Bill Clinton's strong 1992 second-place showing in New Hampshire enabled him to dub himself the "comeback kid" and eventually become the President. Mr. Clinton finished behind former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts - whose Senate seat is now occupied by Senator John Kerry. Senator Tsongas was, like his successor Kerry, a favorite son. Tsongas' win was therefore appropriately discounted by the media. Clinton's success was significant because it was based totally on matters unaffected by particularly local concerns.

The basic fact is that this is a primary in a small state that is dominated by two favorite-son candidates from adjoining states. The most striking thing about what seems to be happening in New Hampshire is that Kerry and Dean - the two favorite sons - combined are on their way to garnering a mere two-thirds of the vote. (According to DRUDGE, it's now Kerry-36%, Dean 30%. UPDATE: Kerry-39, Dean-26, Clark-13, Edwards-12, Lieberman 9) That shows - in my opinion - that both of them are unusually weak candidates. If Dean and Kerry were not weak candidates and the New Hampshire results were therefore completely dominated by these two local favorites, the media probably would have seen more clearly that the New Hampshire primary is irrelevant because it reflects local concerns and prejudices in a small state. But the weakness of these two men creates the illusion that New Hampshire is a national microcosm. In other words, both Dean and Kerry have benefited enormously by their own weaknesses. It won't last.

There is a small additional bit of information in Joe Lieberman's expected very weak showing. He, too, is a New Englander - and the compete absence of enthusiasm for his candidacy in New Hampshire also shows his hopeless weakness. He is an intelligent man, so he will now likely drop out. [UPDATE: He says he's not leaving. So much for intelligence.]

Senator Kerry's "win" today will also be discounted once the media remembers that most of the country lies well south of Dixville Notch and Hart's Location and that Dr. Dean had become a sainted "underdog" who has now, apparently, "come back" as Bill Clinton did from the Gennifer Flowers scandal that nearly derailed him. But that will leave Dr. Dean's "comeback" with much more significance than it deserves. Early returns from New Hampshire are suggesting that Dr. Dean will also have one of those invaluable strong second-place showing in New Hampshire. So isn't Howard Dean the NEW COMEBACK KID?!

Just to write such a thing is to sense its absurdity - although I do not yet write off Howard Dean.

Of course, there are some major differences between 1992 and 2004. Bill Clinton was a Southerner - and anything but a favorite son. The character problems at the root of the 1992 scandal (poor sexual judgment coupled with a broad tendency to prevaricate) eventually seriously impaired the effectiveness of his presidency. So perhaps voters have learned from that experience. Dr. Dean's character problems that have caused much of his decline are, if anything, more obvious and more obviously relevant to his fitness for the office of the presidency.

If either of the Southerners John Edwards or Wesley Clark were to do well in this primary, that part of the story would have special significance, as Bill Clinton's part of the story did in 1992. But at this point they don't seem to be doing well at all (Drudge, again, reports 12 for Edwards and 9 For Clark). The media may have permanently outgrown its former preposterous infatuation with Clark. But 12 points may be enough to preserve the media's widespread willing, continual, irrational infatuation with John Edwards' empty suit and "it"-ism. John Edwards, a man shallow enough to evaporate within minutes of sunup, but whose feckless words (even his body language) nevertheless occassion admiration and respect, sometimes fear, from even some conservative media figures who seem completely aware of the cynicism of his rhetoric. In any event, his failure to do well in New Hampshire doesn't reveal much new information about John Edwards' viability.

The distorted significance being given to New Hampshire is further complicated by the fact that many reporters have evidently conceived a strong personal dislike for Dr. Dean. And that's true of John Kerry, too. Although by many reports both men provide ample grounds for the reporters' reaction, those reactions - coupled with irrational media infatuation with John Edwards - further obscures the small, real story in New Hampshire: Both Dean and Kerry are weak candidates. Very weak. Senator Lieberman is hopelessly weaker - and should leave right away.

UPDATE: John Ellis distills about as much information from the New Hampshire results as can be done reasonably without pretending to get too much. A must read.

FURTHER UPDATE: John Edwards is shallow, but he's not stupid:

Mr. Edwards's showing came as a disappointment to the senator from North Carolina, coming a week after he placed second in Iowa last week. But his advisers noted that he had had less time here than he had in Iowa, where he had built up steam in the final days of that race, and that he was competing against two men ? Mr. Kerry of Massachusetts and Dr. Dean of Vermont ? from neighboring states.

Well, DUH.

Next Tuesday, when South Carolina, Missouri, Delaware, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona and North Dakota have their primaries, will be a real test for all of these candidates. And so will California and New York. Senator Kerry is still far short of a majority even this close to home - and those who think this nomination will be decided soon are reading too much into too little. It's hard to see Kerry really catching fire nation wide. As a 2002 Boston magazine article unearthed by Kerry-loathing Kausfiles describes the new JFK: thin-skinned panderer who poses as a courageous, post-partisan freethinker on issues such as education and campaign finance reform, but bails out when the going gets tough. Now that's the kind of reaction it takes to fire up broad national enthusiasm! Now that Kerry is the designated front runner, all of the others will have intense incentives to point out to the voters the many aspects of Senator Kerry's history and character that gave rise to those Boston sentiments. The effect of that effort may be dramatic - and will probably at least keep Senator Kerry from building a full groundswell. And it's hard to see anyone else catching fire, either. Local ups and downs are a distinct possibility. As is Al Sharpton. Indeed, the reported emphasis Democratic primary voters are placing on the "electability issue" and on the "Anybody But Bush" approach pretty well drives home how little enthusiasm any of these candidates is creating among the broad electorate - even as their much smaller core supporter groups shout themselves hoarse.


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