Media Matters

Loose Lips Sink Campaigns

Guess who’s getting nervous about Dean?

By 12.30.03

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It is obvious to anyone who pays attention that Howard Dean has a loose lip. The capture of Saddam Hussein "has not made Americans safer" is surely a remark that will come back to haunt him as November 2004 draws near. So will his recent ramble on radio: "The most interesting theory that I have heard so far, which is nothing more than a theory, I can't think -- it can't be proved -- is that [President Bush] was warned ahead of time by the Saudis." These gaffes, combined with the growing likelihood that Dean will win the Democratic nomination, have some liberal pundits suddenly very nervous.

The locus of this angst is the Washington Post. "It is Mr. Dean's position on Iraq, however, that would be hardest to defend in a general election campaign," the Post editorial board opined. It also openly worried that Dean touted "Saddam Hussein's insignificance in part because he is unwilling to make a commitment to Iraq's future."

Other Washington Post regulars are trying to spin the gaffes in Dean's favor. While acknowledging that the remark about Hussein was a blunder, Michael Kinsley stated, "Dean won points in my book for another bit of straight talk…[Dean claimed] 'frankly, it was a great day for the administration.' This is a rare example of a politician saying 'frankly' and then saying something actually frank. It comes close to admitting the obvious: that this development helps Bush's chance of winning next year's election and therefore hurts Dean's." In other words, Dean is still the "straight talker."

Although Richard Cohen admonished Dean for his conspiracy theory indulgence, he then suggested that it was more a matter of "providing a context." Cohen stated, "As Dean himself said, the Bush administration has been very stingy about revealing just what it knew about terrorist activities before Sept. 11. Couple that with the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq -- nor a link between Saddam and al Qaeda proved -- and you have a requisite ingredients for a conspiracy theory: Something here doesn't add up." Thus, what Dean said was bad, but it is really Bush's fault.

E.J. Dionne is in frantic mode. One week Dionne is hoping the Kerry-Gephardt-Lieberman criticism of Dean's foreign policy inexperience redounds to the benefit of either John Edwards or Wesley Clark: "The reticence of Clark and Edwards is instructive…Edwards, like Clark, is positioning himself to be the candidate who remains standing." Apparently Dionne hasn't realized that Clark's lip isn't quite securely fastened either. Then just yesterday Dionne assured us that Dean can really win: "watch for the appearance of the new, pragmatic Howard Dean, the doctor with an unerring sense of his party's pulse." Apparently Dionne also hasn't realized that a gaffe-prone candidate isn't all that pragmatic.

Of course, some of this has filtered beyond the Post. Paul Krugman has penned a column that would have been titled "A Guide for the Media to Help Dean Defeat Bush" were there strict laws about accurate headlines. The New York Times pundit speculated that "if the conventional wisdom were instead that [Bush is] a phony, silver-spoon baby who pretends to be a cowboy, journalists would have plenty of material to work with." He encouraged journalists to "Actually look at the candidates' policy proposals" like Bush's "tax-exempt savings accounts." And if they read a Tax Notes article on the Bush proposal as he recommends, there will be "no excuse for failing to report that the plan would probably reduce, not increase national savings." Finally, he implores them to "Look at the candidates' records," because a close look at Dean's record as governor shows "he is no radical; he was a fiscally conservative leader." Watch for the soon-to-appear column in which Krugman denies liberal bias in the media.

One might feel a pang of pity for the Washington Post editorial board, which has largely supported Bush on the War to Liberate Iraq. Other than that, one feels considerable satisfaction in seeing these folks reap what they sow. After all, what have they done in recent months other than encourage the heated anti-Bush rhetoric spewed by Dean? Kinsley laid out a lengthy explanation as to why Bush was a liar over Uranium-gate. Of Dick Cheney, Cohen wrote "It would be fitting, then, for this most powerful of all vice presidents to be the first in American history to be censured. He has it coming." Dionne griped that Republicans were foreign policy "radicals." As for Krugman-- do I even need to give an example?

It was obvious months ago that every movement of Dean's lower jawbone signaled a risky endeavor. Upon the toppling of Saddam's regime, he uttered "I guess it's a good thing." David Tell caught him indulging a conspiracy theory about Bush canceling the 2004 election. Asked by a supporter about this, Dean replied, "I've actually heard that." But instead of calling Dean on this irresponsible rhetoric, the response from most liberal pundits was a wink-and-a-nod that suggested "Atta Boy Dean!" Now they are shocked -- SHOCKED!! -- to discover that the candidate with the most inflammatory rhetoric is also not that careful with his rhetoric.

So what to do? Hope that the Democrats will pick someone else. Shrug and say, "At least Dean is honest, and, well, it's Bush's fault anyway." Delude yourself into believing that Dean's "pragmatist" side will win out. And plead with the media to ignore everything good about Bush and everything bad about Dean. But never admit that perhaps, just perhaps, you played a part in this emerging fiasco.

A few noticeable exceptions on the left did notice the problem early on. In a column from early July, Marriane Means suggested that Dean's "verbal blunders indicate that his lack of Washington experience might be a distinct drawback." But even she can't seem to help herself. Just a few days ago she referred to Bush as "our Con Man-in-Chief." Atta Boy Dean!

As the saying goes, "Loose lips sink ships." Too many liberal pundits have forgotten that they can also sink campaigns.

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David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.