Richard Reeves

Democracy of the Moment, by the Moment

WASHINGTON -- The news here on Thursday morning, as reported in both The Washington Post and The New York Times, was that the White House now believes former Vermont governor Howard Dean will be President Bush's opponent next year.

Those stories were reactions to the endorsement of Dean by the Democrats' 2000 nominee, former Vice President Al Gore. But a more interesting comment on that development was by Michael Galimanis of Beaverton, Ore., who wrote a letter to The Times, saying:

"I've never heard him speak, and I really don't know much about the man. There have been no votes taken, no primaries held. What type of democracy do we have going here?"

What we have is "moment democracy" -- a politics of the moment, by the moment and for the moment. Dean, then, is the man of this moment, created momentarily by the surprising Gore endorsement.

Dean the unknown is being defined by comparisons these days. He is, we're told, like George McGovern, or Jimmy Carter, or Michael Dukakis, other "unknowns" who rose quickly during election years. All three were losers in one way or another. A more valid comparison might be with John F. Kennedy, whose great political achievement was becoming a self-selected president, finding a way to win the Democratic nomination by ignoring or bypassing the old rules.

Kennedy won in 1960 using primary elections, television and the political press to get around the old system of worthy candidates being considered and selected by party leaders. He would never have been the considered choice of state chairmen, elected officials and elder statesmen, so he found his way around them, winning the nation, or part of it, by luring cameras and the press into Wisconsin and West Virginia months before other more credible candidates realized that the race had already started without them.

Dean has accomplished something like that, at least up until now. It is conceivable, as Michael Galimanis fears and the White House seems to believe, that he can win the Democratic nomination before the casting of a single vote. George W. Bush was able to do something like that in 2000, but he did it with the support of party leaders who saw him as a winner.

The idea of television as a medium of "moments" -- the images viewers actually remember -- was articulated in the mid-1980s by Van Gordon Sauter, then the president of CBS News. He was cut down then by a press establishment that suspected him of saying news was actually just another form of entertainment. Duh! He left, saying he was just ahead of his time. For better or worse, he was right.

Also critical, I think, is how "moments" are framed by events. That's as in timing is everything. The White House was reminded of that last week when announcements that countries that did not fight in Iraq were ineligible for Department of Defense rebuilding contracts were made at the same time as announcements that the president wanted those countries to forgive old Iraqi debts.

Along those lines, three political scientists at Duke, Peter Feaver, Christopher Gelpi and Jason Reifler, have created a model (using original polling data) indicating that support of President Bush's policies in Iraq, so far, is independent of casualty counts. What does shape attitudes, they concluded, is the number of television news minutes and seconds devoted to attacks on Americans and whether they are framed by anchormen and correspondents as "battles" or "insurgency." The difference is that American viewers believe battles can be won, but insurgency is out of our control.

Howard Dean, of course, jump-started his campaign and energized leaderless Democrats -- until he came along you might have thought the most important Democrat in the country was comedian Al Franken -- by opposing Bush on the war. That made him a man for many moments framed in insurgent battle. If he can create enough moments on television to blend into a pointillist image of a Democratic candidate for president, he will win the nomination this summer -- and perhaps go on to win the presidency, too.

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