Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Contenders: Howard Dean and Pat Buchanan (PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the second episode in PBS’s compelling The Contenders: 16 for ’16 eight-part mini-series, each of which profiles two people who ran for President in recent years (though “recent,” at least so far, has extended as far back as Shirley Chisholm’s run in 1972). This time the candidates were Howard Dean (the brief Democratic front-runner in 2004) and Patrick Buchanan (who ran three times — as a Republican in 1992 and 1996 and as the Reform Party nominee in 2000), linked as allegedly being “The Flamethrowers,” using particularly incendiary rhetoric that appealed to their parties’ bases and sought to arouse indignation against the Establishment that would propel them to victory. Much of the Dean portion of the episode stressed the pioneering work he and his campaign manager, Joe Trippi, did in discovering and using the political potential of the Internet — at a time when social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist and virtually everyone who used a computer viewed the screen on a cathode-ray tube monitor, a visual detail which vividly dates this footage. They were able to raise large amounts of money — in one spit-in-your-eye response to the Bush administration, they did a major Internet fundraising drive the night Dick Cheney was headlining a fundraiser for large donors, and they made twice what his event did — though it also shows the bizarre “scream” Dean gave after coming third in the Iowa caucuses and the way it got not only replayed endlessly on the mainstream media but became the stuff of parody on late-night TV talk shows. The way the Dean story got blown out of proportion and sank his candidacy after another third-place finish in New Hampshire is yet more indication of how the media rig the process of elections in general and Presidential elections in particular; there’s an interesting column in today’s Los Angeles Times op-ed section claiming that if Hillary Clinton loses this year’s election, the media will be largely to blame. (And we can all remember the way the media rigged the election against Al Gore in 2000 largely on the same grounds they’re rigging it against Hillary Clinton now: by constructing a “scenario” that filtered just about all their coverage through the meme that s/he “couldn’t be trusted.”) What came off most interestingly about the Contenders episode on Dean and Buchanan is how much Dean came off as a prototype of Bernie Sanders — both Vermonters, both with a strenuous and aggressive speaking style, both taking positions well to the Left of the American mainstream (in particular, both calling for universal health coverage), and both attracting most of their early support among disaffected youth struggling not only under the weight of their student loan debts but looking at a future in which they would have a lower standard of living and less access to high-paying jobs than their parents’ generation, and wanting a President who would do something about that.

Sanders lasted considerably longer in the race than Dean did — though he succumbed to a problem Dean would have had, too, if he hadn’t flamed out so early: he never reached large numbers of voters of color. Whatever attempts were made by the Democratic National Committee and others in the party establishment in this year’s contest to rig it for Clinton, the decisive factor that made Hillary Clinton and not Bernie Sanders the Democratic nominee was the fierce loyalty shown her by the communities of color, especially older people of color — African-Americans in particular had deserted Hillary in 2008 when her principal opponent was one of their own, but they came back this year, and it was Sanders’ inability to find a way to reach beyond the overwhelmingly white hue of his support base that, more than any other single factor, doomed his candidacy. Frankly, the Buchanan segment was a lot more interesting than the Dean segment, because right now Donald Trump is taking over the momentum in this year’s general election and seems all but certain to win — he’s dead-even in the current polls (which I suspect understate his support because I think he’s got a reverse version of the “Bradley factor” working for him — about five percent of the electorate is racist enough to vote for him but too embarrassed about it to admit it to a pollster) and he’s definitely gaining, to the point where the Democrats have stopped talking about a popular-vote victory and their last-ditch hope is that Clinton will be able to eke out enough statewide wins to get an Electoral College majority even as she loses the popular vote. The politics of the Electoral College kept Al Gore from becoming President in 2000 (though as I’ve argued in these pages what really kept Gore from becoming President is the National Rifle Association, whose “independent” campaigns for George W. Bush in Tennessee and West Virginia swung those states to Bush — in an otherwise razor-close race Gore became the first major-party nominee since George McGovern to lose his home state, and that mattered because if Gore had won Tennessee he would have been President and Florida wouldn’t have mattered) and Democrats kvetched about it for years — and now the Democrats’ final hope of denying Trump the Presidency is to do him out of a win in the Electoral College even as he carries the popular vote.

The reason a segment on Pat Buchanan is relevant today is that, even more than Howard Dean being the beta version of Bernie Sanders, Pat Buchanan is the beta version of Donald Trump, basing his campaign specifically on opposition to immigration and so-called “trade” deals, actually using the phrase “America First” to describe his foreign policy (a phrase with a long and dishonorable history since it was originally the late-1930’s rallying cry of America’s Fascist sympathizers and the isolationists who were largely their dupes) and questioning the interlocking alliances like NATO and its successors with which the U.S. had essentially assumed the role of policeman of the “Free World” as the Cold War developed out of World War II. Indeed, one of the things that I had forgotten (or maybe simply not noticed at the time) about Buchanan’s speeches on the campaign trail was he did as much railing against the so-called “free trade” agreements and the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA), negotiated by the first President Bush and pushed through a reluctant Congress by Bill Clinton (thereby making both major parties complicit in the wanton destruction of American jobs globalization in general andthese “trade” agreements in particular would precipitate), as he did on the religious/cultural issues and anti-immigration tirades everyone who remembers Buchanan at all associates with him. Buchanan’s rallies also anticipated the Tea Party and the Trump rallies in being overwhelmingly male, white and middle-aged or older, and when one of the talking heads on this show talked about Buchanan as “running against demographics,” that too is a line that’s been used this year to minimize the Trump threat and suggest that future Presidential politics will trend Democratic as the country becomes less white and there are more voters of color in the mix. That’s an analysis that’s been hailed as conventional wisdom for so long it’s motivated the Republican Party to a counter-strategy that involves deliberately making voting as difficult as possible so the new demographic groups that would be less likely to vote Republican won’t be able to vote at all. It’s also been questioned; a recent article in The American Prospect suggested that people who are part-Latino and part-Asian tend to identify themselves as white, and vote the way whites of their socioeconomic class position do, while those who are part-African-American tend to identify as Black and vote the way Blacks do.

I also found it amusing that one of the talking heads (it may have been the same one) proclaimed that Buchanan was running for President to restore an America dominated by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants — when Buchanan himself was an Irish Catholic, which just goes to show how far the various prejudices English and Nordic whites in the U.S. once had against Irish, Italians, Slavs and others they deemed “racially inferior” even if they were, by modern standards, “white” have been subsumed into an overall generic “white” category seen as threatened by rising numbers of people of color in the U.S. as well as the American corporate leaders’ mass exports of jobs abroad and the hiring of immigrants of color to do the jobs (like agricultural work, construction and health care) they can’t ship abroad. It also shows how doctrinal differences among Right-wing Christians have been subsumed to the point where to identify yourself as a “Christian” in a political context almost always means you’re a Right-wing Christian, an opponent of women’s right to reproductive choice, Queer rights in general, the theory of evolution and the notion that humans have anything to do with climate change. (Liberal Christians who get politically involved — or even ones who don’t — tend, when asked what religion they are, to specify which denomination they affiliate with instead of just calling themselves “Christian.”) Nonetheless, watching a show about Pat Buchanan today raised the alarums about Trump and suggested that Trump is to Buchanan what Ronald Reagan was to Barry Goldwater — the candidate who was able to take the same basic issue positions and package them into a more palatable form that, in an election with a lot of alienated voters desperate for “change” and seeing the Democratic nominee as the very personification of the Establishment they want “change” from, will succeed where Buchanan failed and win not only the major-party nomination (which Trump has already done) but the election itself (which he’s well on his way to doing).