Right Hook

Dissecting the Dems: John Kerry's "floppo karaoke" may be no match for John Edwards, the "happy populist." Plus: Bush's new "compassionate counter-proliferation," and martyring Mel Gibson.


Mark Follman
January 29, 2004 5:00AM (UTC)

Quite a few conservative and Republican pundits have spent the first month of the election year sitting in the grandstand, gleefully watching the Dems scrap it out below for their party's nomination. Bush supporters were particularly confident the president was headed for reelection when Howard Dean appeared almost certain to win the Democratic bid. Then Dean's dismal numbers and banshee wail in Iowa blew the primary race wide open. But now, Bush supporters seem reluctant to consider that the fierce competition between the top four candidates, Dean, John Kerry, Wesley Clark and John Edwards, might actually help the Democrats hone a sharper, more election-ready contender; back when it was all about Dean, the field looked paralyzed by infighting and the sole imperative of catching up to the former Vermont governor.

Some previously assured right-wingers are starting to sound a bit more sober, as they take notice of current front-runner John Kerry's veteran appeal (as both war hero and seasoned senator), and the charismatic John Edwards' apparent strength in Bush country, the Southern states. Which isn't to say that a Dean hangover is stanching the free-flowing partisan onslaught; plenty of faithful conservatives continue to attack with aplomb. Syndicated columnist Mark Steyn, a particularly ardent supporter of Bush's foreign policy, writes in the conservative London Daily Telegraph that leader John Kerry, should he indeed land the nomination, is only setting himself up for certain loss with his stale, empty campaign rhetoric:

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"If you go to a Kerry rally -- something of an oxymoron, but let that pass -- the senator's stump speech is a karaoke tape of floppo populist boilerplate. If he'd downloaded it for free from the Internet, that'd be one thing. Instead, he paid a small fortune to hotshot consultant Bob Shrum, who promptly faxed over the same old generic guff he keeps in the freezer: 'I (insert name here) will never stop fighting for ordinary people against the powerful interests that stand in your way.'

"This shtick worked so well for Shrum's previous clients -- President Dick Gephardt (1988), President Bob Kerrey (1992), President Al Gore (2000) and President Insert Namehere (2008) that he evidently sees no reason why it shouldn't elect a fifth president this time round."

Looking ahead to South Carolina, Steyn likes the glossy John Edwards' prospects more -- but that's a relative assessment; ultimately, says Steyn, the GOP owns the 2004 campaign.

"Sen. John Edwards, the pretty-boy southern lawyer, does a much better job of this sort of thing ... True, his stump speech often sounds less like a political platform and more like a laundry list of class-action suits he'd like to get a piece of -- we need to act against credit card companies that charge excessive interest, etc. -- and he has nothing of interest to say about the war. But his qualified support -- or qualified lack of support -- seems to suit a Democratic electorate that recoils from Joe Lieberman's full-throated backing of the Iraq liberation and isn't quite suicidal enough to nail its colours to the mast of the fruitcake anti-war Left.

"That's the real story here: for all Howard Dean's talk that you can't beat Bush with 'Bush Lite', the candidates who'll survive ... are doing their best not to sound anti-war, anti-tax cuts or anti-guns. In other words, even in the Democratic primary, this election's now being fought on Republican terms."

Washington Times contributor Barry Casselman says that all the hubbub over Iowa and New Hampshire misses the point, with a long and winding road ahead for the deadlocked Dems.

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"It has been so long since there was a race all the way to the national convention that it is easy to forget that this contest is really about numbers of delegates. Ahead of the initial primaries are states with fabulous riches of delegates -- i.e., New York, California, Texas, Florida, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey. Of course, if Mr. Kerry wins all or most of these by big margins, the race is over. It could happen that way, but it is more likely that as the contest goes south and west, the results will be mixed -- with all of the five major candidates accumulating numbers of delegates, and Mr. Edwards and, even possibly, Mr. Dean and Mr. Clark, winning some of these states."

Rather than potentially strengthening the candidate who does finally rise to the top, the stiff competition, according to Casselman, will prove nothing but happy news for the GOP.

"The leaders of the Democratic Party know that the longer their nomination remains in doubt, the more difficult will be the effort to defeat Mr. Bush. Failing to have an early consensus for Mr. Dean, they are unlikely to have one soon, now that the competition goes into 'wholesale' states where enormous amounts of money -- and valuable remaining good will between the various interests of the party -- will have to be spent. [But] these strategists, consultants, rich contributors and establishment figures of the Democratic Party, as I have suggested, would like the process ended as early as possible, and at the least expense."

The Edwards factor
Like Casselman, many conservatives had hoped Dean would wrap up the nomination quickly, convinced Bush would trounce him in the election. And after John Edwards' rise to legitimate contender in Iowa, a number of analysts say he may be the candidate -- with his positive message and charming Southern drawl -- whom the Republicans fear most. Ahead of the New Hampshire vote on Tuesday, New York Times columnist David Brooks at first seemed to sound a note of trepidation, and even reluctant respect, about Edwards.

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"John Edwards is one of the happiest populists in U.S. history. He doesn't rage against the 2 percent who have seized all [the] power. He sees politics through the prism of his own personal triumph, his rise from being the son of a millworker to becoming a lawyer and presidential candidate."

But Brooks did his part to tear Edwards down, perhaps looking to taint the freshman senator from North Carolina with a Howard Dean-esque anger complex.

"The emotional climax of his [January stump] speech comes when he describes how he used to represent 'people like you' against teams of highly paid, distinguished corporate lawyers. 'And you know what happened? I beat them, and I beat them, and I beat them again!' The crowds go crazy, but they are not only applauding; they are applauding and smiling at the same time, a result that was not generated by all the other candidates who have used the Two Americas theme over the years."

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Sounding oddly conflicted, Brooks deemed Edwards a half-baked yet convincing candidate -- he appeared almost to be wishing Edwards in the direction of an unrefined, Dean style of campaigning.

"The crucial question for Edwards is whether he can move from charisma to character ... There is grace in his performance but no sense of struggle. Yet Edwards's rise could not have been achieved without moments of anger, resentment and humiliation. If in The February Speech he can communicate that struggle, that sense of difficulty, which is shared by millions, then he will be a less polished campaigner, but a most persuasive one."

"Compassionate counter-proliferation"
In his State of the Union speech last week, President Bush continued to extol the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in part by pronouncing that the U.S. had backed its rhetoric with the necessary muscle: "For diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible, and no one can now doubt the word of America." But James A. Phillips, a research fellow at the right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation in Washington, is applauding what he deems a softer side to the president's tough-talking foreign policy.

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"President George W. Bush's warning in his State of the Union Address that America refuses to live under the shadow of the threat of weapons of mass destruction serves notice to the leaders of those countries that they can not rest easy if they continue to support terrorism and procure terror weapons. [His] State of the Union speech clearly commits the Bush Administration to a policy of compassionate counter-proliferation. The outlaw regimes in Iran, North Korea, and Syria ignore this at their own peril ...

"Significantly, the President did not utter the phrase 'Axis of Evil' which was coined in his 2002 speech. And he stressed the need to export democracy as a long-term antidote to terrorism, calling for a doubling of the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy. Perhaps he has become a 'kinder, gentler' leader like his father did toward the end of his first term. He did note that 'different threats require different strategies,' a remark that suggests that the remaining members of the Axis of Evil, Iran and North Korea (and Syria, which is an unindicted co-conspirator) will not necessarily face the same relentless frontal attack as Iraq did."

Phillips doesn't mention that the National Endowment for Democracy, a nongovernmental grant-making organization that has drawn past criticism for serving as a partisan tool of U.S. foreign policy, had a rather modest budget, according to Slate, of $35 million in 2003.

The passion for Mel Gibson
Right-wing Christian ideologue and media pundit Hugh Hewitt is repaying actor/director Mel Gibson with lavish praise for the invitation he got to one of Gibson's exclusive pre-screenings of the controversial forthcoming film "The Passion of the Christ." Gibson has tried to keep his production hermetically sealed for months, shutting out mainstream Christian, Jewish and interfaith leaders from screenings. But based on a leaked version of the script, many of those religious leaders are deeply concerned that the film will unleash a wave of anti-Semitism -- an accusation Gibson has forcefully rejected. Hewitt clearly anticipates the severe criticism that the film is likely to draw upon release, and he's giving Gibson a resounding thumbs up.

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"The Passion of the Christ is a phenomenal work of art; a moving and inspiring film that will certainly be shown again and again for generations to come. Though I am a follower of Jesus Christ, I do not believe that one needs to be a believer in the divinity of Christ to appreciate the majesty of the movie and its extraordinary commitment to authenticity and an objective recounting of the story of the passion and death of Christ as relayed through the Gospels."

Leading Mel's choir of hand-picked religion experts-cum-film critics, Hewitt gets to the point of his valentine to Gibson:

"I do not understand the accusations of anti-Semitism, for except for Pilate and his soldiers, all of the players are Jewish, the most noble, the flawed, and the corrupt. I do understand the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, and how it perverted the Gospels to its cause, but this film is not part of that shameful legacy. Should anyone try and pervert the movie to that end, there will be millions of Christians condemning such a kidnapping."

And with Mel casting himself as the persecuted artist turned martyr throughout the pre-release media melee, Hewitt puts forth some bona fide gospel to reassure him:

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"'If the world hates you, you know it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.' John 15:18-19. These words of Jesus are a guarantee that the maker of The Passion of the Christ is in for a rough go of it, as well as its cast and crew. If anyone knows Mel Gibson, please pass along my thanks."

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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.


Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

MORE FROM Mark Follman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections David Brooks Howard Dean John Edwards John F. Kerry, D-mass.

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