June 04, 2003
Howard Dean and the national security issue

I've mentioned before in this blog that I play tournament bridge. Bridge players often find themselves playing a hand where it's quite clear that the odds are hugely against them. When this happens, there's usually a point at which you have a choice. You can take a safe and easy course of action, which is a near certainty to lose, or you can do something risky and against the odds in an effort to succeed. What you do in the latter case is to imagine a scenario in which your actions can make a difference, and then play as if that scenario actually exists. You will suffer a bigger loss if your action is wrong, but when weighed against an option that can never succeed, there is no other choice. It may turn out that there was nothing you could have done to affect the outcome, but at least you know you gave yourself the best shot.

That's my interpretation of Howard Dean's strategy regarding Iraq, and it's why I disagree with Kevin Drum about Dean's electability. Dean is sticking to his antebellum stance that invading Iraq was wrong, and he's campaigning on the assumption that future events - in particular, near-future events - will prove him right. I think this is the right move for Dean, and moreover I think Dean is the only candidate who can take this line of play.

It's easy to look at surveys that show 70% or so support for Bush's handling of Iraq and equal numbers that believe things are going well over there and conclude that the only way to beat Bush is to have "credibility" on national security issues, which loosely translates to having supported the Iraq invasion. But it ignores two other possibilities. One is to try and do something about that level of support for Bush and the invasion, and the other is to play for the possibility that something will happen to change people's minds for you.

The first possibility is basically the "Bush lied about WMDs" tack, and it has some promise. That's the kind of story line that can take on a life of its own and eventually come to color everything that's said and written about Bush. It's the sort of thing that war proponents like Kerry or Lieberman could hang their hats on: "We trusted George Bush when he told us that Iraq was an immediate and mortal threat the the safety and security of the United States. We trusted him when he said we needed to invade now in order to destroy their weapons of mass destruction. Now that we have conquered Iraq, we have found nothing to indicate that it was in any way a threat to us. George Bush lied to all of us about why we had to fight this war, and because of his lies thousands of American soldiers are dead or wounded, and many thousands more will be stationed in Iraq for the foreseeable future."

The second possibility makes the assumption that everything in this war so far has gone as well as it could have for Bush and the American troops, but that can't go on forever. With Iraqi citizens demanding that US troops leave and with no timetable for that to happen, it's not hard to imagine the occupation of Iraq starting to resemble the West Bank. People may support having troops in Iraq now, but one well-placed truck bomb like the one in Lebanon that killed 241 Marines in 1983, and I guarantee that support will wither. Alternately, what do you think the public reaction will be if it turns out those CIA reports about Saddam still being alive are true?

The point is that there are many, many things which can go wrong, things that George Bush cannot control, and it's a long way between now and next November. If you believe that Bush has been on an extended run of good fortune and that a streak of snake eyes is surely due soon, then it makes perfect sense to position yourself as the one who called it all along. That's what Howard Dean is doing.

And if everything continues to go Bush's way? Then there's probably nothing any candidate can do, and it's just a matter of how many states Bush carries. That's Howard Dean's strategy, and I fully understand it.

UPDATE: This was the link I was looking for about Saddam's current whereabouts. Thanks to Charles Dodgson for providing it.

To answer Ikram's question in the comments, I'm overstating a little. Strictly speaking, any Democratic candidate who was against this war from the get-go (such as Kucinich or Sharpton) could use this strategy. It's just that Dean has gotten the most mileage out of being "the anti-war candidate", and for better or worse is now firmly identified with it. As he cannot realistically backtrack to a position of agreeing with the war, just as Kerry or Lieberman cannot backtrack to a position of opposing it, he has fewer options. Staying the course and playing for it to be right is what he needs to do.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 04, 2003 to The making of the President | TrackBack

Not trying to be picky or annoying, but antebellum means "before the war." Antibellum would mean "against war." Just something to keep in mind.

Posted by: John on June 4, 2003 2:22 PM

Yes, I know. Dean's stance before the war was that invading Iraq was wrong, which is what I meant. I could have said "his antebellum antibellum stance", but that felt like too much of a mouthful. :-)

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on June 4, 2003 2:28 PM

I think Dean's real problems lie in getting through the Democratic Party's nomination process. He will be hard pressed to gain the nomination with close to 40% of the delegates to the convention being "Super Delegates", party elites that are much more likely to support Gephardt, Lieberman, Graham or Kerry than Dean. He will have to win early and big to survive the primary cutdown and get the party functionaries to give him a chance.

Dean is running on a platform that takes the party left, a sharp departure from the Clinton era triangulation strategy.

In fact, it was as a result of the disastrous 1972 campaign when McGovern ran left and got crushed that the Democratic Party instituted the "Super delegates". The goal was to make sure the nominee was electable and conventional wisdom (no pun intended) says move to the center.

I see Dean being offered the VP slot with a 50-50 chance of him accepting it.

Posted by: Patrick on June 4, 2003 3:48 PM

"Dean is running on a platform that takes the party left"

Would that be his stance on fiscal policy or his stance on guns that takes the party to the left?

Posted by: Thumb on June 4, 2003 5:50 PM

I play Bridge, and really liked you politics bridge analogy.

But you left out the explanantion as to why only Dean can take this particulat position with Iraq and run with it. Is it becuase he was dealt such a crappy opening hand in the primary campiagn?

Posted by: Ikram Saeed on June 4, 2003 5:58 PM


In spite of the dangers in doing so, I will admit to discussing this issue in generalities. Gov. Dean embraces the liberal tradition of his party. Personally I find it sorta refreshing.

He also touts himself as an outsider and, other than Al Shaprton, he is the most authentic in that claim.

But both of those things may tend to alienate him from the mainline party functionaries that by and large make up the pool of super-delegates.

You can see the other candidates moving to the political center especially Joe Lieberman and Bob "I'm from the electable wing of the Democratic Party" Graham.

Dean will do well in Iowa. Very, very well, I think. If he can follow up with a win or a very narrow 2nd in New Hampshire, he can knock out Kerry. Otherwise, it will tough sledding as they head on to the Southern primaries.

Posted by: Patrick on June 4, 2003 6:18 PM

I don't anything about bridge or political strategy, but what you say makes sense to me.

It seems to me most everyone is betting on a repeat of '92, when Iraq I faded off the TV screens and the economy became the issue. I don't see that as the probable scenario this time.

Posted by: Bill on June 4, 2003 6:19 PM

I agree with this analysis, and Dean might indeed turn out to be electable, even though I'm skeptical right now.

In fact, this is one of the nice things about being the party out of power: we get to wait until next year to pick a candidate. If Dean's war position looks good next March, he's our guy. If not, we pick someone else.

We don't have many advantages, but at least we have that one.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on June 4, 2003 6:43 PM

I like Dean (I went to the Dean meetup last night) largely because he's saying things about domestic policy (universal health care, anti-tax cuts) that I agree with. And his populist rhetoric is in tune with the part of Gore's campaign I liked best in 2000, his post-convention approach. As far as I'm concerned, Dean's opinion on the war agreeing with mine is just a bonus.

I'm not sure that the Democratic party elite and I agree on anything up to and including whether George Bush can be defeated.

Posted by: Greg Morrow on June 5, 2003 10:12 AM

I think a big source for this whole flap is the mistaken impression that Dean opposed the war because he's a dove. He's not. He doesn't oppose war, he opposes stupid war.

There's a difference.

Posted by: hamletta on June 5, 2003 4:27 PM

The major problem the democrats face in 2004 is not the popularity of Geroge Bush (although that is a strong enough problem itself), but the actions of the far left, or at least seemingly far left, of the party - Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich.
I don't care what anybody says , these 2 guys don't have a snowball's chance in hell of winning the presidency if they are nominated. Therefore it would behoove the democrats to nominate a centrist with some military or national security experience in order to appeal to the vast majority of Americans that have national security concerns. Dean and Kucinich combined have ZERO national security experience (Dean did not even know how many troops we have). How on earth anybody expects them to beat Bush with that kind of record is beyond me.
I find it completely ridiculous that anti-war democrats use opposition to the war as their main criteria for choosing which democrat they will support. THE WAR IS OVER. The only guys that have a chance of beating Bush in '04 are John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, Dick Gephardt, and Wesley Clark (if he gets into the race). I personally would put my money on Wesley Clark because he would appeal to more Americans than any of the others. Also, unlike the others, there are very few opening for ad hominem attacks on his character. This would force the rebublicans to focus on the debating the issues.

Posted by: Jack Johnson on July 2, 2003 6:13 PM

In case you haven't heard, since Bush declared this war "over", more than 120 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq. Everyday we read about violent conflicts as the death toll rises for Americans and Iraqi's alike. It is true that we are no longer fighting Sadam, but we are now fighting the Iraqi people. Not to mention the fact that Bush still has not yet set any date when our troops will be able to come home. If you told any American soldier in Iraq that the "War is over" he's probably laugh at you.
As far as Dean is concerned, although he gained a large deal of his constituency by opposing the war I feel his appeal to the American people runs much deeper. When Dean talks about balancing the budget like no republican has been able to do for the last 50 years people listen. When Dean talks about healthcare for all Americans, people listen. Dean has developed and continues to amass the largest grass roots network any political campaign has seen in years. He is currently leading in the polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire and possible early successes in both states will make it nearly impossible for the Democratic party to pass him by.

Posted by: Zach Rothschild on August 15, 2003 2:09 PM

well well well...Saddam captured...let's look at all the preceeding banter and now poke large holes in your silly arguments.
Dean is over by the way...so are the communists...i mean democrats.

hahahahaha - John

Posted by: john ertsgard on December 14, 2003 2:07 PM

All right, Chuck, lookit right here. There is no way on Earth that this war was the wrong thing to do. Period. America knows it, the Iraqi people know it, and YOU KNOW IT. To sit around rooting for things to go wrong in the way of "one well-placed truck bomb like the one in Lebanon that killed 241 Marines in 1983" is the worst kind of sour grapes I think I've ever heard. You should be ashamed of yourself, and if Howard Dean gets enough support from the -currently defunct- Soviet Union to win in November, unlike its namesake I've got the conviction to actually move to AlecBaldwinia.

Posted by: JimmyMack on January 5, 2004 9:43 PM