Desperately seeking electability.

Desperately seeking electability.

Desperately seeking electability.

Policy made plain.
Feb. 5 2004 3:26 PM

The Pragmatists' Primary

Desperately seeking electability.

Democrats are cute when they're being pragmatic. They furrow their brows and try to think like Republicans. Or as they imagine Republicans must think. They turn off their hearts and listen for signals from their brains. No swooning is allowed this presidential primary season. "I only care about one thing," they all say. "Which of these guys can beat Bush?" Secretly, they believe none of them can, which makes the amateur pragmatism especially poignant.

Nevertheless, Democrats persevere. They ricochet from candidate to candidate, hoping to smell a winner. In effect, they give their proxy to the other party. "If I was a Republican," they ask themselves, "which of these Democratic candidates would I be most likely to vote for?" And by the time this is all over, most of the serious contenders will have been crowned the practical choice for at least a moment. First it was Lieberman the Centrist. "I'm actually for Dennis Kucinich," a Democrat might say, "because I like his position on nationalizing all the churches. But I'm supporting Joe Lieberman. His views on nearly everything are repellent to me, and I think that's a good sign."

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Then the General entered the race. And I don't mean General Anesthesia. A man in uniform, Democrats thought. People like that sort of thing, don't they? And yet he's a Democrat. Or at least he plays one on TV. True, on most issues he has either no known position or two contradictory positions. But he says he can requisition those missing parts. And he's a General.  Talk about pragmatic! But when the General traded in his uniform for a fuzzy sweater, he suddenly looked less General-like than Al Sharpton.

Some Democrats cheated and looked into their hearts, where they found Howard Dean. But he was so appealing that he scared them. This is no moment to vote for a guy just because he inspires you, they thought. If he inspires me, there must be something wrong with him. So, Democrats looked around and rediscovered John Kerry. He'd been there all along, inspiring almost no one. You're not going to find John Kerry inspiring unless you're married to him or he literally saved your life. Obviously neither of those is a strategy that can be rolled out on a national level. But he's got the résumé. And gosh, he sure looks like a president (an "animatronic Lincoln," as my Slate colleague Mickey Kaus uncharitably described him).

So, it's a deal? Probably, but just to be completely businesslike, Democrats are taking the opportunity to check out John Edwards. He certainly is good-looking, though maybe not in a presidential way. He lacks the uniform, but he has a Southern accent, which is almost as good if you're trying to seduce those non-liberals. Aspiring pragmatists also have noted recent press reports that Edwards has a stunning ability to sway an audience. I'm not looking to be swayed myself, our Democrat thinks. No need to sway me this year; my views don't matter, even to me. But swaying the heathenry would be good.

And Edwards is a first-term senator who never held office before. Thus he offers almost no experience, which is just the right amount. No political experience at all makes you look silly running for president, as Wesley Clark is discovering. But experience is also a disadvantage in American politics. All politicians, including incumbent presidents, campaign against Washington insiders and the political establishment. But it's a bit more convincing if you're a relative newcomer. Also, experience means a record of past votes and speeches. This limits your ability to invent yourself for the needs of today. As Kerry is discovering, even the most uninteresting two decades in the Senate can provide rich material simultaneously for Bush operatives trying to convince voters that you are a dangerous liberal and for primary opponents trying to convince voters that you are not one.

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As each candidate takes his turn in the pragmatists' spotlight, he gets beaten up a bit, irritates supporters of the other candidates, and gives the Bush troops a chance for some early target practice.

If political pragmatism is defined as thinking like a Republican, it's no surprise that Republicans do it better. Four years ago, in a roughly analogous situation, it was decided that the Republican candidate for president should be the less impressive of the two political sons of the man who had most recently lost them the White House. A far from obvious choice. Decided by whom? If you're going to be pragmatic, that's just the kind of question you don't ask. It was decided, OK? On the issues that divided their party, his views were hard to fathom and stayed that way. He was rich in valuable inexperience. And so, with one voice, millions of Republicans shouted a mighty, "Well, I'm glad that's settled."

The process the Democrats are putting themselves through resembles John Maynard Keynes' famous description of the stock market. The game isn't to figure out which stocks are most likely to do well, but to figure out which stocks other investors think are most likely to do well. And these other investors are thinking of other investors and so on. Keynes thought this helped to explain the volatility of stock price. Your judgment about other people's judgment, let alone other people's judgment about other people's judgment, is inherently less certain and more subject to breezes of false or true insight and information than your judgment about your own judgment.

Something similar may be going on in the Democratic primaries. But the analogy breaks down, because only the Democrats are intent on figuring out what other people want. Republicans know what they want.