Democrats focus on the Tea Party movement because it represents a kind of wish fulfillment. Conservatives delighted in the ideological exuberance of Howard Dean’s progressive youth, and they were unprepared for Barack Obama’s slickly post-ideological campaign that drew on the left’s energy while running a disciplined centrist campaign. We’ll see if history repeats itself. Like a lot of people, my gut tells me that Sarah Palin or perhaps Mike Huckabee will be the Howard Dean of 2012. Of course, that would suggest that the Republican nominee in 2012 will be the right’s answer to John Kerry, which is a prospect too disturbing to contemplate for very long.
It might be amusing to speculate on who would be the Republican Kerry of 2012, and I think Romney has to be the leading contender for that special dishonor, but missing here is an acknowledgment of what made Dean into the candidate of progressive activists and the netroots and what made Kerry the drab establishment candidate favored by party insiders. Dean tapped into the strong antiwar sentiment of Democratic rank-and-file, and it was opposition to the war, not his original signature issue of health care reform, that defined Dean’s candidacy in is exciting early phase and its dramatic flame-out phase. After all, Dean may have been coming from Vermont, but he was centrist not only by Vermont standards but also by national Democratic standards. He was an unlikely leader of progressive protest, but he exploited the establishment candidates’ initial support for the war to drive a wedge between them and the party’s activists. When the race began, he would probably have been seen as being slightly to the right of Kerry on domestic issues, but his positioning on the war ended up identifying him with the party’s left.
The split between Obama and Clinton was similar to the split between Dean and Kerry, but a crucial difference was that Obama had built up his own organization alongside of the netroots and activist groups and was able to match and outperform Clinton on the ground, especially in all those caucus states she took for granted. Dean relied so much on the netroots and activists that when it came time to get his voters to turn out that he simply didn’t have the campaign infrastructure to translate tremendous fundraising and media coverage into votes. In this and other respects, Ron Paul’s campaign in 2008 was already the right’s answer to Howard Dean, and McCain was in many respects the Kerry of last year.
What the war was for Democrats in 2004, health care legislation and bailouts will be for the Republicans in 2012. Romney fits the Kerry mold perfectly, and like Kerry he will be forced by the strength of the primary challenge from some Dean-like representative of the “Republican wing of the Republican Party” to run away from his record on health care and bailouts. In fact, Romney has already been trying to make people forget that he favored the bailouts when it mattered, and no doubt he will engage in some of his typical dishonesty when confronted with the question of his record of support for health care mandates. Like Kerry, he will have zero credibility in opposing most of the President’s agenda, which means that Romney’s already fairly strange focus on foreign policy and national security may have to become the centerpiece of his campaign to distract attention from his record of signing off on universal health care in Massachusetts and endorsing deeply unpopular bailouts of Wall Street. For all of the ridicule he received, Kerry nearly won, but I doubt that Romney would be able to do as well as Kerry did unless economic conditions worsen severely.