The Dean campaign now faces its moment of truth as to whether to continue on the path that it began, or shift into a traditional campaign. Oddly the tax issue seems to be the possible Rubicon. Here's a four-point plan to regain the initiative on the issue.
Note: what follows is a purely tactical analysis. I make no claim in what follows as to the substantive validity of the tax policies discussed.
Almost every 'insurgent' political campaign that has hit it big in the past 50 years has gotten cold feet and gotten so cautious and mainstream that it alienated part of its base without getting much traction with swing voters. This certainly happened to the John Anderson campaign and the McCain campaign. It famously didn't happen to Goldwater or McGovern, which is why it keeps happening since then.
Personally, I think that while shifts to the center are ok, obvious pandering ones are not. Thus, any move has to be stage managed very carefully, or it ends up costing you more than you get.
The justly praised New Yorker profile of Dr. Dean suggested that Joe Trippi at least understands (understood?) this:
Last summer, Joe Trippi told U.S. News & World Report that he had given Dean a curious piece of advice: “I tell him the only way he can win is to believe in his heart he cannot win. We’ve got to act like we have nothing to lose.” That, as they say, was then. When I asked Dean, in mid-October, whether he still subscribed to the Trippi wisdom, he replied, “In part. I think the problem with the Democratic Party in general is that they’ve been so afraid to lose they’re willing to say whatever it takes it to win. And once you’re willing to say whatever it takes to win, you lose—because the American people are much smarter than folks in Washington think they are. Do I still believe it? I think you have to be ready to move forward and not just try to hold on to what you’ve got. I truly believe that if you’re not moving forward you’re moving backwards in life. There’s no such thing as neutral.”
But compare that line to the distilled conventional wisdom chatter in today's The Note [unstable link!]:
The Boston Globe's Glen Johnson and Michael Kranish elucidate the apparently evolving nature of Dean's thoughts on tax cuts. LINK
“Rival campaigns seized on the statements by Dean and his aides as evidence that he is 'flip-flopping' on his tax plans. They also said it is inconsistent with his relentless criticism of them for wanting to retain the middle-class elements of the Bush administration tax cuts. But Dean aides defended the evolving policy.”
“The governor has always said that he is going to offer a tax plan that is fair and simple for working families. He's never ruled out a middle-class tax cut. The plan is not complete yet,' Dean campaign spokesman Douglass Thornell said as Dean and his entourage flew back to Vermont from Iowa.”
Los Angeles Times' Matea Gold reports that the potential shift (or alleged shift) comes “as he has fielded criticism from some of his rivals for wanting to roll back the entire $1.7-trillion Bush tax cut package, a move opponents say would burden working people.” LINK
In a story about Dems and tax cuts, The New York Times ' Robin Toner Notes Dean's “sudden scrambling” on the issue. LINK
That doesn't sound so good.
So, here's my four-point plan as to what to do and how to spin it.
First, dump your tax plan. That quote about repealing all of Bush's tax cuts will be wrapped around your neck and other delicate parts of your anatomy.
Third — and this is the radical part — admit you stole Clark's plan. In fact, don't just admit, brag about it. After all, it's traditional for a nominee to pick up parts of rivals' programs for the general election. Why wait? Say that this just demonstrates what a great guy Clark is, and that it also demonstrates that you approach public policy like a doctor or scientist. When someone comes up with a better treatment for a sick patient (Bush's economy) you don't hold on to the old method just because you are used to it. You read the medical journals, you keep up with developments, you rely on peer review, you use the latest and greatest techniques.
Let the Republicans (or the Democrats!) scream “flip-flop”. Tell them you are proud of it. Unlike traditional politicians you listen. You don't have ego in your plan, you want what is best for America, and your experts have convinced you that this was better than version 1.0. Say that Presidents who are prisoners of an ideology are bad Presidents. Good ones listen and learn. To the charge that this means voters can't know what you stand for, you say it shows you stand for what is best for America, whoever thought it up. Then find something (minor!) Bush did you like and say, you even agree with Bush on some things. Wanna make something of it?
Fourth, junk your plan to announce the new tax policy in a few weeks and do it right now, before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Why now? Because there is some danger of not meeting expectations, or of having Clark exceed them, and in either case stealing his plan after the fact will look weak rather than bold.