Tuesday, February 20, 2007

All Things Considered: Polls, Primaries and Dodd’s Prospects

The coup de grace in political campaigns ought not to be delivered by pollsters months and even years before the votes have been counted. But here it is anyway: Doug Swartz, the tea leaves reader at Quinnipiac College, commented on Sen. Chris Dodd’s meager presidential prospects, “If Dodd can't even come close to winning a Democratic primary in his home state, that's obviously a bad sign for his presidential campaign.”

One is tempted to reply with a variant of Laura Ingraham’s repeated refrain: Shut up and poll.

Dodd’s problem is long standing. In his own time, Abe Lincoln heatedly objected to the elimination of viable candidates through early and possibly misleading “canvasses” or party nominations. In our day, primaries have made the problem worse. The quibbling over who should be on the ballot in general elections used to end after political conventions, when delegates had selected their tickets. Primaries extend the early jockeying for position, deplete party resources needed to win general elections, and invariably give the edge – both in ability to raise money and enforce unity – to incumbent politicians in both parties who are able to defend their seats without debilitating primaries.

Primaries also force those engaged in them to tailor their platforms to satisfy the ideological purists within their parties – progressive Democrats or conservative Republicans. The general electorate, however, is always far less ideologically oriented than the primary electorate. Ned Lamont, the Greenwich millionaire who defeated Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman in a hotly contested primary here in Connecticut traveled so far out on an ideological plank, in order to make himself attractive to progressives in the anti-Lieberman camp, that he became vulnerable in the general election to charges he was a single issue candidate in the grip of progressive delusions. Playing to the primary gallery, Lamont lost the votes of the larger electorate in the general election.

These are perils Lincoln never had to face. Lincoln’s remarks on slavery, the imperishable union and the imprescriptible rights the founders had tucked into the Declaration of Independence – Lincoln’s lodestone during his debates with Steven Douglas – were carefully modulated so as to reap the greatest votes from the greatest numbers in a general election.

Had Lincoln faced an abolitionist candidate in a primary election, it is doubtful he would have made it to the White House intact, because an abolitionist primary candidate would have peeled off votes from him and forced Lincoln to publicly embrace the abolitionist position on slavery. Lincoln was an abolitionist at heart and in truth – after he had become president. Candidate Lincoln was, to use the biblical term, “wise as a serpent, gentle as a lamb.” Primaries do not allow for such nuances as Lincoln effectively deployed against Douglas. “Tell the truth, but tell it slant,” says the poet Emily Dickenson. Who will not slant the truth in a primary election, more often than not, loses in the general election.

Some of the Democrat presidential candidates this year are more armored with nuance than others. Hillary Clinton, one suspects, cannot move away from her present position on the war in Iraq – I voted for it; I’m now against it, but I do not intend to admit errors in judgment, ever – without driving a nail through the coffin of her husband’s legacy. It is not that the Clinton’s would rather be right than be president: They want to be both president and right – even when they are wrong. Then too, the Clintons, used to looking to the future, probably have guessed that the terrorists against whom President George Bush has declared war are not likely to disappear back into the woodwork if the United States prematurely retreats from the field, leaving victory to those who have pledged to destroy everything Lincoln, Dodd and the Clinton’s have worked so hard to preserve and pass on to posterity.

There are some ugly truths about the war that no one is telling. For instance, every war in history has been won by victors who have a) rightly identified belligerents, b) chosen among the belligerents which group they wished to support, c) supported that group with their blood, sweat and tears, and d) destroyed utterly the group they had not chosen to support. Bush’s strategy did not embrace these truths – but neither does the strategy of Bush’s opponents, both at home and abroad.

Given the nature of this war and these trans-national Islamic terrorists, those decisions will have to be made in the future, by someone other than the inept Bush. An American retreat will end nothing. And even at this remove, it is a fairly safe bet that Dodd will not be that person.

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