Tales From the Sausage Factory: Saddam and Howard Dean

I seem to be the only one in America who fails to see the link between the capture of Saddam Hussein this week and the 2004 Democratic Presidential Primary. Or so says an op ed in today’s Washington Post. On the other hand, I do see this as a classic example of media group think.

No sooner did news of Saddam’s capture break when pundits began to ask who it helped politically in the ’04 Presidential race. The analysis, however, was extraordinarily simplistic. Capturing Saddam hurt anyone who made the war a campaign issue (assumed without evidence), Dean had ridden to front runner status on the basis of opposition to the Iraq war (also assumed) therefore this hurt Dean in the short term against the candidates who had supported the war (Leiberman and Edwards mostly, with some help to Kerry, but since Kerry has waffled so much it was hard to say if this helped or not). It was also stipulated that this would boost Bush in November.

My reaction to this analysis was, and still is, why? For one thing, those who opposed the entry into the Iraq war who are politically active at this stage do not retroactively think it was the right thing to do. Pretty much everyone thought Saddam a sleaze bucket who they wished would disappear from the face of the Earth. No one would have shed a tear if, before the U.S. invasion, Saddam had become yet one more victim of the unexplained yet documented phenomena of spontaneous combustion. To the extent that Dean’s campaign rallied a segment of the Democratic party angry at the Democratic establishment that either supported the war (Leiberman, Edwards) or waffled (Kerry), that anger is still there. Those who thought the war was immoral still do, despite the mass graves and the evidence of Saddam’s brutality, just as those who thought the war justified still do even without finding weapons of mass destruction. What is at play is the vast middle ground of American people looking for leadership and explanations in confusing and difficult times, but this segment — which even if affiliated with a political party usually thinks of itself as independent and does not vote straight party tickets — generally doesn’t vote in party primaries.

Yes, Leiberman has enjoyed something of an uptick in the last week. But that trend started after Gore endorsed Dean. Leiberman has been getting some sympathy for Gore’s shabby treatment, as well as some much needed media exposure (which until now has focused almost exclusively on Dean). Leiberman also has received some new interest as democratic faithful that do vote inprimaries but hadn’t made up their mind start picking from the existing field.

(Some disclosure, I’ve supported Leiberman and Dean and Edwards in various ways. I gave money to Leiberman early, but I’ve become more excited by the Dean campaign as its economic message clarifies and its use of the Internet makes it clear that he (orhis campaign at least)understand about empowerment (more on that below). I also supported Edwards when he issued a statement on increasing rural access to unlicensed spectrum.)

So Saddam’s capture strikes me as supremely unlikely to affect Dean’s supporters who come from the anti-war camp.

More importantly, and what the media pundits in their quest for simple solutions continue to underestimate, is that the Dean campaign is not just the anti-war vote. The Dean campaign is about the alienated dis-empowered vote, which is why I am betting that we will see a surge of new voters in this election.

What has made the Dean campaign so unusual, and so exciting to me personally as a long time Internet user, is that it is finally beginning to leverage the potential of the Internet as a political organizing tool. For all that Dean is now the front runner with loads of money raised, he has a relatively tiny staff. Yet his aparatus is present in every state. How? Because they made a decision early on to give tremendous autonomy to those they connected with on the Internet to recruit and act, rather than rely on traditional command and control.

This is not to say the Dean campaign exercises no control over the various volunteers springing up. And it is a strategy that may still back fire (either by accident or by unscrupulous anti-Dean organizers inserting themselves into the process disruptively). But the critical networking theme of Dean is that his supporters feel empowered and connected to the campaign — and this despite the fact that recent news stories from reporters criticize Dean himself as aloof and abrasive.

Pundits have mistaken this empowernment as flowing from Dean’s message — that he speaks for the antiwar crowd when the Democratic maintsream ignored them. Butmy perception is different. The antiwar crowd that supports Dean felt alienated from the whole political process. Dean’s campaign provided, for the first time, a way for the anti-WTO anti-Globilization pro-Social Justice/Affirmative Action bunch that have been marginalized since Clinton brought the Democratic party to the center a way to participate in the mainstream process again rather than just getting skulls cracked in Maimi at the FTAA. (This, of course, is one of the reasons the mainstream Democrats are so unhappy with Dean).

Again, it remains to be seen if this strategy is ultimately succesful. On the one hand, the Democratic base has been shrinking, and this has cost the Democrats votes. In 2002, most Republicans went to the polls while many long-time democrats stayed home and many constitcuencies that traditionally become democrats (minorities, unions) remained disengaged. It is these people, the ones feeling disconnected from the center, that I predict will turn out in droves for the first time since 1992. OTOH, the large chunk in the middle, the chunk that split 51/49 for Bush in 2004, may find Dean too ill-defined and frightening because of the people who find him empowering.

Either way, the capture of Saddam doesn’t play into it one way or another. And certainly not as to the democrats only primaries coming up.

But what about November? Is the capture of Saddam going to help Bush?

Well, Bush got a modest 6-point bump in the polls this week. That’s probably due to the Saddam capture as well as the other general good news in the economy. But Novemebr is a long way off. If the insurgency continues and Iraq is still a mess, high profile stories about Saddam’s trail are unlikely (IMO) to make much difference in the electorate.

To the extent the capture of Sadam does allow the administration to quell the insurgency and reach a good political solution in Iraq (defined for the administration as allowing most American troops to withdraw in June and a government that doesn’t collapse before November), then yeah, the capture of Saddam helps Bush. But by November, the public will be looking to judge the administration’s Iraq policy as a whole, not just on the basis of whether we got Saddam. One of the chief objections by those who opposed the war was that it would leave us less secure not more secure, by replacing a stable Iraq with an unstable mess and earning us the enmity of the world. Supporters responded that Iraqis would respond to the opportunity to rebuild their country as a stable, unified polity (hopefully a democracy at that) and that the rest of the world, while opposing us at the outset, would reverse their opinions when our Iraq policy proved succesful.

So does the capture of Saddam automatically help Bush? No. It makes teh job easier in Iraq, but it increases the risk. If October comes around and Iraq is still a mess, the critics will argue that they were right all along and that the capture of Saddam is irrelevant to the larger issues. And, if Iraq is a mess, they’ll be right.

Nevertheless, there is an amazing power of media group think at play here. Because all the pundits agree that this “hurts Dean” and “helps Bush,” you hear that everywhere. Even activists I have spoken with who know that their opinions haven’t changed one iota glumly accept this assesment as gospel true. I haven’t spoken to a single person who changed their opinion about Bush, Dean, or the iraq war on the basis of the capture of

Saddam, but they all beleive that other unspecified people will, because the media tells them so with one unified voice.

And why does the media tell them so with one unified voice? Partly because there are damned few voices out there, and partly because the ones that remain are lazy herd beasts who look to what each other is saying.

OTOH, perhaps I’m wrong. I am, after all, the only person I know who thought _AfterMASH_ was a good show or who thinks the Book of Ecclesiastes is an uplifting book about love and the pleasures of life rather than about gloom and moralism. Still, I shall watch the primaries with great interest.

Stay tuned . . . .



  1. I think you’re correct that Saddam’s capture doesn’t alter the basic issues, or the minds of the majority of voters who form opinions from those facts. However, even the biggest “landslide” elections in this country are amazingly close. They are swung by significant minority of wafflers who are likely to be swayed by news of Saddam’s capture. They are also likely to be swayed by the release this week of cute movies of the Bush family dog.

  2. Ed, I think you are thinking wishfully.

    You don’t think it’s useful for the Democratic candidate to be able to say, “All that money, all that ordnance, all that blood, and you didn’t even catch Saddam”?

    I think Stearns is right. The undecideds decide these days, and that’s who these cats are talking to. Now, they can’t say that. QED?

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