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The Shriek Heard Round The World
When does a single gaffe sink a campaign?
April/May 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 2
Yet it also remains entirely unclear whether or not anything Blaine did actually cost him votes in New York City. New York, then as now, was a Democratic town, one that not even Lincoln had carried, and Blaine’s performance was the best by any Republican presidential candidate in the city in the previous 12 years. Where the last two GOP nominees had lost New York by roughly two to one, Blaine lost by less than three to two. He drew record votes for a Republican in the poorest and most Irish wards of the city, while losing Burchard’s own bailiwick, staunchly Republican Murray Hill.
What did it all mean? The Tammany Hall sachem “Honest John” Kelly had a long-standing feud over patronage with Grover Cleveland and seems to have pulled the old Tammany trick of damning the national ticket with faint majorities. At the same time, rebellious middle- and upper-class Republicans, repulsed by Blaine’s financial scandals, bolted the party in large numbers. Or, as Allan Nevins, Cleveland’s leading biographer, put it, “the central explanation of [his] defeat was simply that Blaine was morally suspect.”
A national election, then as now, is so large and determined by so many disparate factors that it is nearly impossible to single out one. Observers in 1972, for instance, attributed Muskie’s loss in the primaries as much to his vague message, his soporific speaking style, and Democraticparty divisions as to any tears in New Hampshire. Gerald Ford had to contend not just with the Iron Curtain but with the wake of Watergate, a stagnant economy, and the gaffes of his vice-presidential candidate, Bob Dole, who in a truly bizarre debate of his own laid the casualties from all the American wars in the twentieth century at the feet of the Democrats. And would we still be talking about Al Gore’s rolling eyes and patronizing sighs if a few chads in Florida had fallen the other way?
The lesson to be learned from all this is that we should resist the tendency of the American media to superimpose a narrative on every event they cover, from the World Series to the presidential primaries. To force, that is, their own handwriting upon every wall.
Dr. Dean’s histrionics seemed less indicative of pathological anger than of just how silly any adult can look trying to cheer up a group of disappointed children. But the fact remains that before Dean delivered so much as a yelp, he had already suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of the people of Iowa, trudging out on a cold winter’s night to meet their neighbors in schools and churches and living rooms. That is the real story here. It is called democracy.