The Right Coast

January 26, 2004
More Electoral Musings: Revealing Events and Late Hits
By Michael Rappaport

One aspect of Howard Dean’s decline seems striking: The emphasis that has been placed on the speech that he gave the night of the Iowa Caucuses. Should this one speech really matter that much? Although Dean’s decline began well before the speech, I actually believe that single events of this sort not only do, but should matter. His speech suggested that he was capable of rash, undisciplined, and mean-spirited behavior, when he should have been dignified and restrained. This is relevant to the merits of his candidacy both because it is a window into his personality and how he would govern, but also because part of the President’s function is to project a public personality that can help unify the nation.

Other single events have also proved significant, and in retrospect, perhaps justifiably so. Al Gore was leading George Bush in 2000 after the conventions, but then Gore behaved badly during the first debate – making faces, acting aggressively, and interrupting – which so turned off the electorate that Gore fell behind in the polls until the election.

Interestingly, I did not find Gore’s first debate behavior so bad. Nor, I must admit, was I so put off by Dean’s Iowa speech. But apparently I have a minority view. And I must admit, the American people may have had more insight here. Gore’s behavior during the debate was exactly the kind of behavior one would expect of someone who would refuse to accept the Florida results and would be willing to put the nation through a political crisis.

It may therefore be justifiable to use single events to judge someone’s character and merits as a candidate. By contrast, a different type of event – a late hit in the election – is what worries me about our electoral politics. I mentioned above that Bush remained ahead after the first debate, but he appeared to have lost the popular vote largely due to a surge for Gore provoked by a Democratic activist’s release of Bush’s Maine DUI arrest, an illegal and cheap shot that was delayed until the weekend before the election. (Yet, Bush appeared dignified and calm in response, which certainly reduced the damage.) An even worse late election hit, now largely forgotten, involved Bush’s father. The week before the 1992 election, Lawrence Walsh, the Independent Counsel, issued an indictment of Caspar Weinburger that ended a surge in Bush’s popularity. Walsh had no reason other than partisanship to issue the indictment before the election and it was done in violation of Justice Department guidelines – an impeachable offense for an independent counsel if there ever was one. Even if you think Ken Starr behaved badly, he never did anything approaching this level of misconduct.

The moral, I suppose, is that the electoral process can suitably emphasize single events that reveal something about candidates, but late hits are problematic. Sadly, such hits appear to have increased in recent years, as the recent California gubernatorial election of Schwarzenegger suggests. I wonder what electoral surprises we can expect this November.