The future of the Democratic Party depends on a sustained con job. But to pull it off, the Democrats need a con man far less obvious than Howard Dean. A transparent demagogue, Dean is like a used car salesman scrambling to sell broken-down cars by slapping new paint on them.
The Democrats aren't taking advice from Zell Miller but from PT Barnum. Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people, Barnum said, though he might have revised that observation had he seen the big top of the modern Democratic Party, which is running into the problem Abraham Lincoln identified: you can't fool all of the people all of the time. Having experienced liberalism in its distilled form for decades, the American people were able to measure Democratic rhetoric against reality in this last election and judged it clownish. What the Democrats live in fear of -- not that the American people won't grasp the meaning of their rhetoric but that they will -- came to pass. How stupid do you think we are? was America's shrug at the rhetoric of the John Kerry campaign.
Bill Clinton, a veteran con man who knows that words aren't enough to dupe people, had advised Kerry to support state propositions against same-sex marriage. Willing to oppose gay marriage in word but not deed, Kerry was spooked by Clinton's advice and declined it. Dean will be an even harder pupil for Clinton to train. If Kerry couldn't plausibly oppose gay marriage -- since he hailed from the liberal state that had made it an issue in the first place -- how much more difficult will it be for Dean? As governor of Vermont he signed the first same-sex civil unions bill in the country, and made that a prominent selling point during last year's primary.
Like satire sprung to life, the Democrats lost an election (primarily) on gay marriage, abortion, and de facto pacifism, then proceeded to make their loudest voice a failed candidate who most visibly carries that baggage -- an off-putting blowhard who has said "I can be our first gay president," oversaw abortions as an executive board member of Planned Parenthood, and said Osama bin Laden is innocent until proven guilty.
Dean's clumsy paint job of policies that had alienated the country didn't even hold up on his first day as chairman. Betraying dismay and puzzlement, the Washington Post reported that one of the incoming chairman's first acts last Friday was to meet with the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus. If Dean is opposed to gay marriage, he must not have informed Gloria Nieto. She told Dean "how she married her female partner in Massachusetts last year, and says she hopes that her community will always be respected within the Democratic party," reported the Post. "To which Dean walks out from behind the podium and envelops the woman in a big hug. He is crying himself. 'That's why I'm a Democrat,' he says."
This must make Clinton wince. He always made sure to reserve his weeping for larger voting blocs. As evident in his hasty firing of Joycelyn Elders and temporizing on gays in the military, Clinton had enough of the South in him to observe a Machiavellian respect for the very middle-class morality he was violating. But Dean can't stop himself from starkly setting himself against bourgeois morality, assuming like many coastal Democrats that the common sense on which it rests will pass away. It won't. It is the fads that defy common sense which pass away -- and these fads form the collapsing platform of the Democratic Party.
This is what makes the con job of the Democrats so tricky. They are in effect asking Americans to suspend their common sense for the sake of destructive novelties and experiments against human nature. A used car salesman can only sell a malfunctioning car to a person once. Dean's talk of "changing" America -- which means changing it into a country Americans won't recognize or want to live in -- will only persuade the ignorant. And Dean can't even muster minimal charm for his supposed customers. He has started his sales pitch by bumptiously revealing his fundamental antipathy for a majority of Americans -- he declared that he "hates" everything that the "Republicans stand for."
"We don't need to apologize for our principles," he says. "We need to talk about them in a different way." Translation: let the great con begin.
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