John Kerry might yet come back and win. If not, it's possible to pinpoint the moment he and the Democrats put themselves on a glide path toward defeat. It didn't have anything to do with Kerry per se, but it affected contemporary Democratic politics in an irrevocable way. Last June, Howard Dean went on "Meet the Press" and had, by any reasonable standard, a disastrous performance. Among other things, he didn't know how big the U.S. military is.
If the traditional rules of presidential politics had applied, Dean probably would have been laughed out of serious contention. Instead, he got a boost. Contributions poured into his Web site, helping create that famous Dean Surge. Donating to Dean despite his obvious shortcomings was a way to stick it to the establishment: "Sure our candidate is a walking embarrassment, but we like him anyway -- so take that!"
This dynamic fueled Dean's gravity-defying candidacy for months. He didn't bother to become a better candidate because it didn't seem necessary. Dean eventually got his comeuppance in a Kerry comeback widely interpreted as a return to Democratic rationality.
But the massive apparatus of outside Democratic money and activism that fueled Dean didn't go anywhere. It hated President Bush, and it would do as much this year, with its financial might, to define the Democratic message as the Kerry campaign would do. Just one such outside group, MoveOn.org, has spent roughly $17 million. To what effect? A recent MoveOn.org ad was typical. It slammed Bush for getting us into a quagmire in Iraq, depicting a U.S. soldier slowly sinking into quicksand until he raises his rifle in a surrenderlike gesture.
This ad must have been emotionally satisfying to produce, but the over-the-top image of a helpless U.S. soldier was radioactive and provided an opening to the Bush campaign to excoriate Democratic defeatism. Like the Dean candidacy itself, much of the advocacy of anti-Bush lefties this year has been an expression of purposeless fury. MoveOn.org could just as well be called ActingOut.org. As the brilliant journalist Mark Steyn puts it, "Rather than making new converts for the party, they seem mainly to have radicalized the existing ones," forcing "a vacuous establishment nominee to genuflect in their direction."