Politics like it oughta be

MANCHESTER, N.H.–New Hampshire is cold and windy, it gets dark early, the drivers are horrible, the people give the world’s worst directions, and everything closes down early. If you get past those negatives (plus those unbelievable accents) you can see something heartwarming and beautiful: American politics the way it was meant to be.

Sure the airwaves are saturated with the Democratic presidential candidates’ ads, but the commercials are so ubiquitous that they almost amount to white noise. The real politicking is done in high school cafeterias, retirement home basements and at VFW halls over bowls of hot Chili.

I spent the latter half of this past week bouncing between New Hampshire’s small towns watching Howard Dean, John Kerry, Wesley Clark, Joe Lieberman, and Dick Gephardt. I spent hours in these cafeterias, bars, and coffee shops harassing the Granite Staters to get their views on the candidates. For anyone who loves politics and talking to strangers as much as I do, things could hardly be better.

Here’s a brief chronicle of what I found:

John Kerry, Dud Supreme

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry may end up going down in history as the greatest underachiever of the modern era of primaries and caucuses. Since the primaries and caucuses became critical to the nominating process in 1972, there has perhaps never been such a great ratio between reasonable expectations and actual performance as we are seeing with Kerry.

At the Barley House in Concord Thursday night over 25 cent wings and a 24 oz. Sierra Nevada, one wealthy New Hampshire liberal named Bob told me, “I spent my whole life waiting for John Kerry to run for President. When he finally did, he wasn’t the man he was supposed to be.”

Kerry was supposed to own New Hampshire. Massachusetts’ proximity to New Hampshire should have guaranteed him victory here. But Granite State voters don’t play that game. They don’t believe they owe anybody their vote until the candidate proves himself to them.

At the Kerry chili-feed in Merrimack Wednesday night, with some spicy chili desperately needed on a frigid night, Kerry drove away a few more voters. One told me that Kerry (called Skeletor in some circles in Washington) lost his vote when he refused to advocate raising the top rate back up to the 91% it was before John F. Kennedy cut it down.

The comments I collected about Kerry throughout the week were similar: “He’s done.” “A has-been.” “Finished.” “Toast.”

Nobody really wanted to say much negative about him, because they felt kind of bad for him. His problem was that he didn’t understand that nobody in New Hampshire was willing to give him a vote because he deserved it (distinguishing themselves from Republican primary voters outside of New Hampshire in 1996).

All Kerry had going for himself early on was that he was the front-runner early on. When Howard Dean and Wesley Clark came to town with a little more to offer, Kerry had nothing left. (Note: John Edwards just got a cup of coffee at the café where I’m writing this.)

Like a cornered dog, Kerry has gotten back some fire. He got a couple ovations Thursday morning at a gathering of college students (when he said he wouldn’t prosecute those who illegally use marijuana for medical purposes) but in the end, he’ll be left scratching his remarkably shaped head as he finishes third or fourth in New Hampshire.

Wes Clark, Warrior on the Rise

It was almost jarring going from Kerry’s imperious tone (likely the result of trying to sound presidential since he was a kid), to Wes Clark’s sincere and personable manner.

In a retirement home near Concord, Clark’s campaign showed the brief bio movie of the four-star general, which was easily the best such movie of any of the candidates. Like Kerry, who fought in Vietnam, Clark largely tries to sell himself and his resume. Clark, however, has a better sales pitch and a better product.

His life story is compelling, and he tells it without the arrogance of Dean and Kerry. The lines that divide him from Bush are clear, but he draws them without getting red in the face or sounding extreme.

Clark entered late and started slowly, but he could actually win New Hampshire. Both at the retirement home and Concord High School Thursday night, I talked to a dozen former Dean supporters who were now flirting with Clark.

This is another beautiful aspect of New Hampshire politics. Like Iowa, the voters pay close attention to the candidates. Unlike in Iowa, they have not made up their minds yet.

Iowa’s caucus-voters quickly become activists, partly because of the nature of the caucuses. For the final weeks of the campaign there, the battle is less about changing minds than getting supporters motivated to brave the cold and make it to the caucuses.

In New Hampshire, because the voters take their jobs seriously, they are mostly unwilling to make up their minds until they’ve seen all the evidence. This gives Clark a fighting chance in the Granite State. He has already caught the eye of thousands of erstwhile Kerry, Gephardt and Dean supporters. In the New Hampshire debates after Iowa, Clark will have a chance to seal the deal.

The Dean Dimension

I felt like route 101 had taken me to a new dimension when I attended the Dean rally at the Portsmouth Music House Friday. A cover band kept the sell-out crowd lively until the front-runner took the stage to wild applause.

Dean accurately described his campaign as the greatest grass-roots campaign in recent American history. The former Vermont governor speaks clearly and captures the anger of many Americans. His supporters are self-motivated, and his message and tone differ from the inside-the-beltway candidates.

But much of what keeps Dean’s supporters so enthused is that they dwell in the same alternate reality he does.

Dean and the Deaniacs live in a world very different from the rest of us. From his Music House speech I learned that they live:

In a world where “there was no middle-class tax cut.” I certainly noticed my tax rate falling from 15% to 10% on a portion of my income, and my brother definitely noticed marriage penalty relief and the expanded child tax credit. There is no reasonable way to assert that these cuts–which apply to anyone earning over $7,000–is not a middle-class tax cut.

In a world where Carbon Dioxide is a pollutant. Dean, in his typical smug tone, said Bush’s “Clear Skies” initiative enables polluters to pollute more because it does not count CO2–the stuff we exhale–as pollution.

In a world where Republicans are the race-baiters. Dean says he is “tired of the Republican Party dividing us by race,” and that Bush’s using the word “quota” to describe the University of Michigan’s quotas is “playing the race card.”

Somehow he missed the Gore ads that accused of George W. Bush of figuratively killing a black man in Texas by opposing a hate-crimes law (Gore endorsed Dean). Somehow he missed Jesse Jackson’s accusing Bush and his brother of systematically disenfranchising blacks in Florida in 2000 (Jesse Jackson, Jr. has endorsed Dean). Somehow he missed the Philadelphia Mayor’s race where Democratic operatives said the FBI’s investigation of the black Democratic mayor was racially-motivated.

Either Howard Dean or Wesley Clark will win New Hampshire. Clark can beat Bush, Dean cannot. So quite a bit is at stake here. New Hampshirites have a lot of power in the world. I can tell from talking to them all weekend that they take that seriously, and they deserve it.

Tim Carney is a reporter for the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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