Despite Wesley Clark’s awkward unveiling to the national electorate two weeks ago, the retired four-star general has won himself a position at the top of several national polls. But based on last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal/CNBC debate in New York City, most of the Democratic field has chosen to ignore Clark, dismissing him as a novelty who, lacking the necessary political machinery, will wither in the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire. Instead they have spent their time slicing apart former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, casting him as a compatriot of Newt Gingrich and skewering him as an anti-Israel radical. Dean now has spent his week plotting the opening stages of his campaign against Clark, the only candidate in the field besides Dean who can plausibly sell himself as an outside-the-Beltway antidote to the Washington establishment.

Kate Green

Howard Dean has sprung a surprising gambit to corner Clark and limit his appeal. Speaking to The Washington Post’s Terry Neal, Dean said of Clark, “This is a Republican who just converted to being a Democrat. That’s going to be a big problem for a lot of people.” Dean generated much of his early support with his blistering attack on the Democratic Party status quo and his familiar refrain, appropriated from the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, “I’m here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” spoke to a generation of activists alienated from the Democratic Leadership Council’s control of the party. But more importantly, Dean’s confrontational approach toward the Democratic Party appealed to the electorate’s distaste for large organizations.

From the demise of machine politics to the massive decreases in union memberships, that hallmark of the industrial age, the large organization, has endured a slow and steady decline as individuals become disenchanted with the culture of the large organization. They are viewed as conformist, intellectually stifling, faceless and antiseptic. In short, everything we despise. In the world of business, no one leaves college intending to spend his life with one company along the lines of the archetype criticized in William Whyte’s “The Organization Man.” One of the prime factors discouraging college graduates from pursuing a career in the federal government is a profound disinclination toward bureaucratic culture. Everyone wants to be a rugged individual, oozing charisma. People hope to take a year off and write screenplays, backpack through the Hindu Kush or start a boutique consulting firm. The good life has evolved along a decidedly individualistic bent over the past 40 years.

The ramifications of these developments for the world of politics are particularly significant. The days of enormous blocs of voters uniformly following the diktats of their precinct captains are long gone. Ticket splitting is at a historically high level. Loyalty to parties has decreased. Political behavior has become less predictable as the fundamental cleavage of the industrial age, economic interests, has been largely replaced by the role of individual beliefs and worldviews. NGOs and interest groups have sprung up to monitor politicians on specific issues and more voters than ever before base their political decisions on one issue.

The rise of Howard Dean was the latest chapter in this story. Dean billed his campaign as a challenge to the entrenched attitudes and interests of the federal government. He vigorously caricatured his opponents as a personification of party fealty, a collection of political hacks whose entire careers are due to their unyielding service to the party. He utilized the Internet to expand his appeal to narrow subgroups that usually garner little attention in presidential races.

Now Dean is taking a different tack to battle the Clark candidacy. Dean’s criticisms of Clark echo the attacks that Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut’s campaign staff levied against Dean this summer. In their minds Dean would upset the Democratic establishment, hijack the party leadership and cripple the party in the process. These arguments were based on the underlying assumption that the party is something that needs to be defended and, as a result, they had little traction. Voters barely took notice of the Lieberman criticism, dismissing it as intramural squabbling. The Dean campaign has yet to learn the secret to its success: It’s the ideas and the attitude, not the organization, that matter now.

Peskowitz can be reached at zpeskowi@umich.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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