TO: Governor Howard Dean, The Deanery, Old McGovern Way, Montpelier, Vermont.
FROM Nick Machiavelli, Senior Partner, Machiavelli, O’Blarney, Iago, Alcibiades, and Morris, Political Consultants.
Only yesterday, my secretary came into the office and told me I would never guess who was on the telephone asking for me.
“Chance favors the prepared mind, Lilith,” I told her. “Put Governor Dean on the line.” For I had read the polls too and realized the desperate situation you are in. Not to put too fine a point on it, you are Leonidas at Thermopylae, Scott of the Antarctic, and Colonel William Travis at the Alamo all rolled into one — namely, the gallant leader of a doomed band.
Please do not bother to pretend otherwise. It irritates me when someone thinks he can fool me as easily as he fools himself.
Of course, the fact that you have seized the lead in the race for the Democratic nomination is clear and even praiseworthy. You are narrowly leading in Iowa and Massachusetts polls; you have raised large sums of money via the Internet; you have been on the covers of Time and Newsweek; and a tailor’s dummy could seem lively alongside most of your rivals.
Yes, the poisoned chalice is within your grasp.
For consider what the nomination will be worth on present trends. Take in particular a poll conducted by the Bill Clinton’s former pollster, Mark Penn, for the Democratic Leadership Committee. This shows that only 33 percent of the voters describe themselves as Democrats which, as The Economist points out, is the lowest number since the New Deal. That’s not good.
What’s worse is that leading Democrats, by ramping up their criticism of President Bush over Iraq, seem intent on placing the Democratic party on the wrong side of the defense- and foreign-policy issues that voters care most about in the aftermath of September 11. Again according to Mr. Penn, the Republicans lead the Democrats on terrorism by 28 percent, on homeland security by 33 percent, and on national security by 35 percent.
Which leaves the party hoping for an economic catastrophe to improve its fortunes. That is never a very attractive posture for politicians to adopt. And since the latest economic statistics mostly indicate that the U.S. economy is reviving, it is doubly a high-risk approach. If Democrats pin all their hopes on a bond-market collapse pushing the rest of the economy back into stagnation, they risk looking like the little boy at a party who is jealous because it’s another boy’s birthday. If you go along with that, it is your balloon the voters will pop.
Unless something very dramatic happens by this time next year to turn things around, the Democratic nomination might be worth even less than the vice presidency which, as you will recall, John Nance Garner compared unfavorably to “a bucket of warm spit” (or so the politer histories have it).
So how can you turn things around? Let’s face facts: You start with one gargantuan problem. You are the Democrat who has been most hostile to Bush over Iraq and who is most identified in the public mind with weakness over national security.
So, Item One: As soon as you have wrapped up the nomination in the second round of primaries, you must sidle rapidly away from this issue. Denounce Saddam Hussein as a wicked tyrant. Demand Osama’s head on a platter. And call for a level of U.S. defense spending that fully matches the nation’s foreign policy commitments. That sounds reassuringly tough. But since you intend to reduce our foreign-policy commitments more or less completely, it is an election pledge you can easily keep.
After that, put the national-security issue in the freezer and keep it there.
Item Two: Stress those issues on which the public naturally trusts the Democrats more than they trust the GOP — in particular, health care. Here you enjoy a matchless advantage — namely, the fact that you are a doctor. The voters don’t know that doctors are about as expert on the economics of health care as motorists are on the installation of a city’s traffic-light system. They will trust your expertise. And whatever George Bush says, any Democrat can outbid any Republican when it comes to compassioneering.
Item Three: Bush has a hidden vulnerability — namely, red ink. Many conservatives, many Ross Perot independents, and many naturally Republican WASP voters in the northern tier of the U.S. from Seattle to Boston dislike the traditionally Democratic budget-busting high-spending ways that the Bush administration has now imitated.
You already have a reputation (vastly exaggerated, I know) as a fiscal conservative in the Vermont governorship. So exploit this and appeal to the puritan instincts of these voters by denouncing the president for fiscal irresponsibility, overspending, and a “Washington Knows Best Attitude.”
Whatever you do, though, don’t threaten to raise taxes! Instead, promise to “keep them low.” How then will you cut spending? Easy. By “good old-fashioned Yankee tightfistedness” (Maine), by “kicking foreigners off welfare” (Mississippi), and “by trying really hard” (the West Coast.)
Item Four: Fiscal conservatism, however, is not enough. You still need an issue on which Bush can be made to look unpatriotic while you wrap yourself in the flag. Try America’s broken immigration policy.
Immigration is now a national-security issue — the hijackers were immigrants, legal and illegal; an economic issue — it undercuts the job prospects of low-income Americans including minority workers; a fiscal issue — immigration directly hikes state and federal spending on education and other public services; and an issue of national unity — immigration balkanizes the U.S. by admitting people from different cultures in numbers too great to be assimilated readily.
And unlike other issues involving patriotism, immigration has two thirds of the American people on one side — and President Bush firmly on the other. Indeed the Bush administration is proposing to expand immigration by giving an amnesty to illegal immigrants already here that would inevitably attract potential immigrants to cross the border. Bush on immigration is a ripe and easy target.
Yet even as I write these words, I know that the cause is hopeless. However ambitious you may be, however ruthless you fancy yourself, however badly you want to win, you will never bring yourself to campaign on issues like illegal immigration and cutting government spending. You have internalized multiculturalism and Keynesianism too thoroughly to think seriously on these topics. You will go down to defeat in a thoroughly principled way.
My advice is therefore pointless and I really should not send you an invoice for it. Still, a deal is a deal. Please wire the agreed sum in euros to the Liberia Reconstruction Fund at the Bank of Iraq (offshore branch) in the New Antilles. And may I interest you in a Florida timeshare for after November 2004?
— A version of this piece originally ran in the Chicago Sun-Times and is reprinted with permission.