GRINNELL, Iowa -- Chris Dodd understood the thirty people gathered before him in the Forum South Lounge of Grinnell College better than they understood themselves -- and he wasn't shy about saying so.
"For those of you who don't know me maybe only seen my picture on television or heard my voice, you've been asking two questions since the moment I walked into this room," Dodd said. "And they're very difficult questions to ask, so I'll ask them for you."
No one can say the senior senator isn't bold or innovative. Usually politicians take questions from the audience and then shoehorn a preferred soundbite into the answer. Here was a man unafraid to streamline the process, to ask and answer his own questions.
"The first question is 'Who am I?'" Dodd began. The room was silent save for some uncomfortable shuffling, a typical reaction to the threat of late afternoon existentialism. Dodd quickly corrected his question to more accurately mimic an audience member: "'Who is this guy standing in front of me?'" Better. "I don't mean in the sense of I haven't read enough about you" -- wait, have we not read enough about him or has he not read enough about us? -- "or because the national media may not have paid enough attention."
Dodd said this last in a way that left little doubt as to whether, by his lights, the media has paid enough attention. "I think we're far more than our resumes. We could all give our CVs and mark dates in our lives...but I think you should be asking a far deeper question than what my resume is."
Things were unraveling here quickly. Dodd was criticizing as too shallow a query he had made on our behalf and without our input. How long would it be before he began bickering with himself in two voices and slapping himself in the face?
"Who am I?" he continued, shifting back to his own point of view. "Where do I come from? What are my values and character? What's my DNA?" The senator paused, as if waiting for someone to take a saliva swab and run it over to the lab for analysis, then offered his particulars: His father prosecuted the KKK and the Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials. His sisters taught. He himself served in the Peace Corps, the Army National Guard and both houses of Congress. Public service, he said, ran through his veins.
Now that we had settled who he was, Dodd divined from the ethers the second question too difficult for his audience to pose itself: "Do I have any idea who you are?" Well, judging by the first question, probably not. Sometimes, though, when an earnest child does a magic routine, you just humor the kid and tell him he picked the card you were thinking of.
"That might be the most important question the electorate ever asks," Dodd mused, unabated. "I'm always stunned at the number of people who run for public office and think the elections are about them and not about the people they seek to represent."
Yes, how do people get that impression. Could it be that certain -- cough, cough -- politicians spend a great deal of time answering questions they ask themselves on behalf of the audience?
"We'd like to know where you stand on various issues," he continued, adopting the persona of the audience again momentarily. "But there are more profound and deeper questions than that. Do you know who I am? Do I know who you are?"
The lines of perspective blurred as Dodd moved, rhetorically, in and out of our heads. He assured us, nevertheless, that the answer was an affirmative on both counts. We knew him. He knew us. And now that that was settled, Dodd opened the floor up to questions not channeled through him.
"Will I ever be able to afford a hybrid," the first inquisitor asked. "I'd like to support the environment."
Ugh. On second thought can we just scratch this and let Dodd ask another question for us?
IT'S NO MYSTERY WHY Chris Dodd is seeking to assert more control over this process. Thus far, the nomination fight has not had much of an upside for him, aside from some Daily Kos kudos and a firefighter union endorsement.
Canvassing the small crowd at Grinnell College, I could not find a full-fledged supporter of the five-term senator at his own event, only a few undecided voters, a handful each for Hillary and Obama, and one overly enthusiastic Biden supporter.
"Joe Biden says Chris Dodd is his best friend," he said. "You know that, right?"
Well, at least for the time being those bosom buddies don't have to worry about the presidency coming between them. Neither Dodd's new television ad ("As you might have guessed, I'm not a former First Lady or a celebrity..." it begins), nor his repeated not-so-subtle attempts to goad his audience into subverting conventional wisdom are designed to steal votes from his pal Joey. There is bigger game to hunt here and he's counting on Iowans to help him get a tough shot off.
"It isn't just a matter of celebrity or other issues that make the difference in people's decision making process here," he said, without bothering to define what those other issues were. We can probably guess what he's getting at, though. If the Democratic caucus base is obsessed with identity politics to his detriment, however, who is Dodd to complain?
His own campaign commitment cards ask people to check off little boxes signifying their concern for, variously, "Students," "Seniors," "GLBT," "Hispanic/Latino," "Asian Americans," "Women," and "African Americans." (Perhaps tellingly, there is no box for "Patrician White Men Who Want to be President.") Dodd encourages people to think of themselves as interest groups and then becomes indignant when they take it a step further and incorporate those biases into their ballot-box mindset.
Details, experience and accomplishments, Dodd high-mindedly lectured, these are what should really count. "Too often I think we flirt with the idea that people without any experience or limited experience can do this job," Dodd lamented. "I would protest very strongly."
And yet the vast majority of the laundry list of accomplishments he presents is stale, full of victories from the eighties and early nineties, well before Hillary or Obama came to the Senate. Dodd proudly notes, for example, a "rather groundbreaking" hearing he held on sexual abuse...in 1981. He bragged longer about authoring the Family and Medical Leave Act than about anything else in his speech. It became law almost fifteen years ago.
While reliving that particular victory, Dodd told a story about the sweet deal he got from the U.S. government after he had knee surgery, as a way of illustrating what a wondrous thing medical leave was.
"I was out for three or fours weeks, I got a paycheck, I didn't make a committee hearing, I didn't make a vote in the U.S. Senate," he recounted. "No one raised an eyebrow."
So, in other words, no one noticed he wasn't there. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
THERE WAS ONE FERVENT fan in the Grinnell audience. Unfortunately for the senator, it was his wife. Jackie Dodd was a firecracker, frequently applauding until the audience followed suit, whooping and hollering at lines in the speech as though they were incredible truths being revealed to her for the first time and answering questions posed to her husband. (By the by, don't tell Mike Huckabee, but Jackie is a Mormon.) During the non-Chris Dodd dominated segment of the Q&A a young man asked whether Republicans such as himself could really trust Dodd to be bipartisan, Jackie cut in.
"Can I answer that?" she asked. Not waiting for permission, she turned to the young man. "My entire Republican family, of which there are probably a couple hundred, are all switching parties to try to vote for him in the primary."
As the in-laws go, so too should the nation go? It's a tough sell, although Dodd hardly offers a better rationale for his candidacy during a stump speech that is repetitive, lethargic and full of the generalizations he endlessly accuses his opponents of engaging in.
Dodd says he decided to run because he had a daughter born two days after 9/11, but doesn't explain it much further than that. (Hey, Chris, a lot of people have had daughters since 9/11.) He champions his core principles as unshakable, yet when explaining how he would balance those principles with pragmatism and his dedication, in theory at least, to bipartisanship, Dodd's thinking is muddled at best.
"Fighting is a wonderful thing provided at the end of that fight you do something on behalf of the people you're fighting for," he explained. "If it's just a fight for the sake of having a fight or to make yourself feel good or your core constituency admire you for the fight, then at the end of the day people will have a very empty sense about what happened."
What did happen? Or, more to the point: Do you know who I am? Do I know who you are?
American Spectator Contributing Editor Shawn Macomber is writing a book on the Global Class War.
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