The Corner

Chait On Kerry and Character

I didn’t get all the way through Chait’s piece yet. But I did get through this part:

You have to wonder, when was the last time a party nominated a presidential candidate of such low character? Oh, yes: That would be four years ago. In 2000, Bush painted Al Gore as a flip-flopper whenever possible. Voters, he declared, “don’t want flip-floppers as president of the United States.” Rather than dispute Gore’s positions, he derided them as incoherent. When Gore criticized privatizing Social Security, Bush’s spokesman mocked it as Gore’s “third position in six months.” This characterization was amplified in the media. “Mr. Gore has a bit of a reputation for flip-flopping and corner-cutting on issues like abortion and trade,” reported a New York Times news story in August 2000.

The last candidate as opportunistic and unprincipled as Gore was Bill Clinton. In 1992, George H.W. Bush’s campaign ran advertisements assailing Clinton’s contradictions. “As the case of military service makes most clear, these differing positions are, in fact, more than mere flip-flops. They reflect a fundamental element of Governor Clinton’s character,” charged Dan Quayle. Bush mocked Clinton by visiting a Waffle House. This perception of Clinton became so ingrained that even liberal Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau depicted Clinton as a waffle. Four years later, reported the Times, Bob Dole spent “weeks portraying [Clinton] as a waffler without real convictions” and ran under the not-very-subtle slogan, “The better man for a better America.”

There are two possible interpretations of this history. The first is that the Democratic Party, characterologically speaking, has had an astonishing run of bad luck. For four straight presidential elections, it has put forth nominees of such dismal personal integrity that they have been identified in the public mind largely by their prevarication and flip-floppery. This is the interpretation you’d reach if you believed the Sunday morning talking heads, the Republicans and their allied pundits, and the late-night comics.

That would make for quite a coincidence. So let us consider a second interpretation: There is nothing particularly dodgy about Kerry or the previous two Democratic nominees. Their inevitable portrayal as flip-floppers instead reflects larger structural forces in our political system that would result in almost any Democratic nominee acquiring a similar reputation. And the way we understand “character” in presidential elections tells us very little about the true character of the people who would be president.

MeI stopped there because I actually believe the first theory. I think there is something inherent to the Democratic Party in the last 20 years that makes flip-floppers more likely to get nominated. It has something to do with the fact that the national party — i.e. it’s major donors, civil rights groups, Hollywood, New York media etc — are far more left wing than rank-and-file Democrats. Chait himself has written about how affirmative action is very unpopular in America but elite Democrats love it (and elite Republicans are terrified of dealing with it). Also, the Democratic Party is much more coalitional. These and other forces contribute to the need for these Dems to play a double game. For example, once Gore became a “national Democrat” it became that much harder to be a Southern Democrat. That’s why he lost Tennessee. Bill Clinton was much better at playing both sides — and I doubt even Chait would say that Clinton was a man of granite convictions. But Clinton’s I agreed with the minority but would have voted with the majority schtick was a perfect distillation of how a creature of the modern Democratic Party was trying very hard to suck up to two different constituencies simultaneously.

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