Among the Iowa Democrats
From the September 1 / September 8, 2003 issue: Great moments in presidential campaigning.
Sep 1, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 48 • By DAVID TELL
In the meantime, though, he's raising the most money, too, and the Des Moines Register poll has him on top, a within-the-margin-of-error hair in front of presumed favorite Dick Gephardt. So we might as well go ahead and call Howard Dean the Iowa front-runner--and take note of some subtle hints that he is adjusting his campaign pitch accordingly. His trademark, that lacerating, almost surreal contempt for Bush, remains in place: If the president had his druthers, Dean characteristically remarks at one point this week in Iowa, "you'd still have 12-year-olds working 12 hours a day in the cotton mills six-and-a-half days a week. . . . I honestly believe people like George Bush and Tom DeLay would go back that way if they could." Me, I don't honestly believe that Howard Dean honestly believes any such thing, actually. But I believe he figures it profits him to say so, just as I believe he simultaneously figures it's otherwise time for him to tone down his last-angry-man persona and concentrate on consolidating and protecting the early lead he's eked out for himself.
Dean has begun regularly attending to his rivals in a way he never used to, aggressively looking for opportunities to respond to their jibes and make light of their competing proposals. Here in Waterloo he uses a question about Social Security from Richard Trumka to knock down Dennis Kucinich's repeated--and accurate--charge that he's flirted with structural entitlement reform in the past. "I will not support" any increase in the Social Security retirement age, Dean promises, and "privatization will be off the table." Certain unspecified candidates whose health care blueprints are significantly more ambitious than Dean's--meaning Dick Gephardt--get the back of his hand: "It makes us feel good to take on the insurance companies and the AMA and all that stuff, but it doesn't get the plan passed," and "I want a plan designed to pass." A similar measure of self-conscious realism has even crept into Dean's conversation about foreign policy. Sort of. No longer does he describe his famous opposition to the war with Iraq as a matter of fundamental principle--that the invasion was unwarranted by any sufficiently grave threat to American security interests. Nowadays he claims to have opposed the war "because I didn't think the president was telling us the truth about why he was sending our kids over there." This is a pretty nifty trick of revisionism, since it precisely and not coincidentally echoes recent complaints against Bush made by Sen. Kerry and thereby complicates the Kerry team's ongoing whisper campaign to paint Dean as a military-averse defense weakling.
Only at the very end of his IFL appearance--with an obviously calculated, on-off-switch abruptness--does Dean let loose his crowd-pleasing Howard-the-Insurgent routine, turning red in the face and hollering that Democrats have to "go to the base first and get the base excited and not forget who put us here in the first place." Because, lookit, he says, much more quietly, the "most important issue" is "who can beat George Bush."
Meet Howard Dean, the betting man's safe-money, pole-position horse. It's a cool performance, on balance. Chilly, even.
Oh. Dennis Kucinich is in Waterloo, too. He, too, goes redfaced--and bounces up and down on his toes, and blows spittle all over the microphone, and makes the P.A. system fuzz over with earsplitting distortion. But Kucinich does this nonstop, the whole time he's on stage. He can't help himself. That's just the way he is.
Iowa Falls, August 13
Dean's staff aides will tell you that labor loyalty to Gephardt is purely a front-office phenomenon--that rank-and-file workers, actual voters, feel no special affection for the congressman. But that can't be right. Earlier this afternoon, when it was Gephardt's turn to speak in Waterloo, right after Dean and right before Kucinich, he was treated like the pope. He got a standing ovation merely for walking through the door, before he'd said a word. The rank-and-filest of convention delegates, dozens of them, left their seats carrying disposable cameras, walked quietly to the front of the hall, like it was the most important thing they'd ever done, and took memorial snapshots of the man. And then he began to talk, and the rank and file were rapt.
"I'm the guy that fought my own president, President Clinton, on trade," Gephardt reminded them. "I respect all the other candidates in this race," but "let me tell you something: Most of them were for those treaties when they were in front of the Congress." So "before you come down on this race, check the record. I'm there. I've always been there." Even as a child he was there, Gephardt went on: "My dad was a Teamster and a milk truck driver in St. Louis," which was the "best job he ever had," a lesson Lou Gephardt regularly impressed on young Dick during dinner table devotionals about the priceless value of organized labor. Little of this story was true, as it happens. In real life it seems that Gephardt's father was a rock-ribbed Republican who hated driving the truck, hated Harry Truman, and hated unions, all unions, his own included; he'd joined the Teamsters simply because it was the only way he could get his dairy-delivery job after being laid off as an insurance company bookkeeper during the Depression. But the IFL conventioneers didn't know this history, and it might not have made any difference if they had. In Waterloo, Gephardt was boffo, a star. "I will be there" in the future, he swore at the close, to a second, thunderous standing ovation. "I will be there for you and your families and for the hardworking people of this country."
The question remains, then: What's the problem with Gephardt's campaign?
Seventy-odd people are with me in the Ellsworth Community College cafeteria at 7:30 on a Wednesday evening, here to "meet the candidate" and chuckling rather too indulgently over the antics of an entirely unexpected (self-professed) celebrity while they wait. This would be one Daniel R. Vovak of Greenwich, Connecticut, who's wearing a Halloween-costume colonial-patriot wig, and telling anyone who'll listen that "I'm running for president, too," though at age 31 he is constitutionally ineligible for the office--and even were he 65, he'd still be an obnoxious pain in the ass. Vovak clearly has a bad case of ariannahuffingtonitis: an unquenchable craving for undeserved fame. So he makes a beeline for the man standing next to me, ABC's George Stephanopoulos, who's already had the pleasure of making President Vovak's acquaintance. Whereupon, back on planet Earth, Dick Gephardt finally comes through the door, only to be set upon by Wig Man. "I'm running for president, too," Vovak tells the startled Gephardt. "I'm running for president, too," he repeats, when he realizes that the ABC camera crew hadn't had the sound on at first.
Fools happen on the campaign trail, and not every candidate suffers them gladly; Howard Dean, one imagines, would have barked Vovak's ears off. But Gephardt is not Dean. Gephardt is unusually, almost painfully nice. So he spends endless minutes chatting up this latest jerk to grab his hand. And he then spends endless further minutes chatting up all the other, comparatively ordinary people in the room. These people, too, are rapt, just as the IFL convention attendees were earlier in the day. Gephardt tells his "daddy was a Teamster" story again--and it works, again. Gephardt tells the story of how his then-2-year-old son Matt was diagnosed with a rare cancer and given just four weeks to live: Matt is alive today, more than 30 years later, only by "a gift of God"--and also through the grace of a generous health insurance policy that ought to be every American's birthright, and will be once Dick Gephardt is elected president.
Matt's cancer crisis shows up verbatim, right down to the heart-rending catch in dad's voice, in virtually every Gephardt stump speech, and . . . well, hell, I'll say it: The damn thing starts to feel just a wee bit creepy and exploitative after you've heard it the sixth or seventh time. But nobody else in tonight's audience appears to be put off in the slightest; maybe news of Matt Gephardt's triumph over the Big C is only now reaching Iowa Falls. For whatever reason, you can hear a pin drop while the elder Gephardt remembers aloud how he knelt down on the family's bedroom floor, "tears streaming down my face," and prayed with all his might for his little boy's life.
It goes on like this, minus the pathos, for 40-plus minutes: a serious major-party presidential contender who's effortlessly got 70 likely Iowa caucus-goers eating out of his hand.
And then, as Gephardt fields one final question from the floor, there emerges a first faint hint why Lou and Matt--and a down-the-line pro-labor voting record, and an undeniably attractive personality, to boot--might still not be enough to put him over the top. A man wearing a baseball hat, a pair of shorts, and sandals starts reading Gephardt a typewritten lecture he's prepared in advance. It's "perfectly clear, crystal clear" that George W. Bush "lied" us into war with Iraq, he says. But "none of that really matters, because Republicans and Democrats" in Congress banded together and gave the president "permission" for his dastardly adventure. "Why," the man fairly snarls at Gephardt, "should I vote for you--or any other Democrat?"
The atmosphere is suddenly tense. Chairs shuffle. People murmur. But Gephardt keeps his cool and very politely, very firmly, stands his ground:
We had 15 years of intelligence, from the Clinton administration, from the CIA during the Clinton years, and I talked to lots of the former officials at the time from the Clinton administration. We had information from the U.N., from intelligence services of a bunch of European countries, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, had components of weapons of mass destruction, had the ability to quickly make more weapons of mass destruction. He had used weapons on his own people. In 1991, when we got into the country after Persian Gulf War I, he was one step away from a nuclear device. What we're worried about is an A-bomb in a Ryder truck in New York, in Washington, in St. Louis, in Los Angeles. . . . In my view it cannot happen. I'm going to do everything in my power to prevent that from happening. . . . And I'm not saying I'm right and everybody else is wrong. But I had to call it the way I saw it. And I believed that this was a step that we needed to take to keep our people safe. . . . [And] I will never back down from trying to do my best to keep this country safe.
There've been times in Gephardt's career when he's made significant position flips for political convenience. Back when he was a junior congressman he was a stalwart pro-lifer, for example. But there've been other times when Gephardt's proved himself admirably stubborn about his views--even when they threatened to cost him votes. And this may again be one of those times; Iraq may be costing him votes right now.
After the meeting breaks up and people are starting to make their way home, I ask Gephardt's questioner, 48-year-old Bruce Johnson, whether he could ever see his way clear to voting for a candidate who'd backed Bush on Iraq. "No," Johnson tells me. "I'm looking at Dean right now."
Newton, August 14
There was the requisite splash of gratuitous acid to the president's face; it was here that Dean shot off his child-slavery sweatshop barb. There was the tactical repositioning on Iraq: Dean saying he'd objected to Bush sending "our brothers and sisters and our parents and our children to a foreign country to die without telling the truth to the American people about why"--but Dean never revealing what he thinks that "truth" might have been. Then there was some bragging about Dean's gubernatorial record in Vermont. And a piece of grand-finale red meat about how Democrats can only beat "the most conservative, right-wing president in my lifetime" by planting a defiant, unembarrassed bootful of traditional liberal-progressive principle right in Bush's keister.
And then Dean started slowly for the door, delaying himself only for an abbreviated session of handshakes and impromptu conversation with The People. During which he managed to slide away--instinctively, completely, and apparently quite successfully--from the only potentially dangerous encounter in his path. Norma Jean Sharp, a 70-year-old former nurse who now runs a small home-furnishings business on Newton's modest downtown commercial strip, wanted to know what Dean's positions on abortion and Israel were. Sharp is passionately committed to the state of Israel, she later told me. She's also passionately opposed to abortion, having been abandoned on a doorstep in Wyoming as a baby. And at least until recently, she's considered herself a very strong Republican.
None of which Howard Dean had any reason to suspect when Norma Jean Sharp asked him her questions. But still he somehow divined that the best thing to do was fudge. Abortion: It's irreducibly a moral issue, and "we're never going to resolve that," and Dean prefers to move along to the "90 percent of stuff we agree on" in America, most of us anyway. Israel: "They'll be all right. . . . I'm not going to let anything bad happen to Israel. My wife is Jewish."
I asked Sharp what she'd thought of the governor's responses. And it turned out she'd been satisfied: Dean was just what she'd been looking for--"halfway intelligent" and "more for our country than what's happening now," President Bush having displeased her in various ways neither of us had time to explore. And was she aware that Howard Dean is an uncompromising, Roe v. Wade, pro-choice purist, I wondered? I immediately regretted the question: It sent a cloud of distress across this nice lady's face. "I did not know that," she whispered, shaking her head.
Later on, around noontime, in the basement of Des Moines's Corinthian Baptist Church, John Kerry attended an invitation-only lunch meeting with "African-American leaders" convened on his behalf by Iowa civil rights legend Willie Glanton. And the contrast with Dean could not have been starker. Kerry is much the more personable, easygoing man, and he consequently makes the better first impression. For most of half an hour Kerry chomped down barbecue sandwiches, like he does it every day, while making casual, discursive chit-chat with his hosts--and thoroughly charming them, every last one. And yet before the lunch was through, Kerry had managed to partially un-charm a strikingly beautiful older woman named Catherine Williamson who complained to him that neither he nor any of the other Democratic would-be presidents was speaking to her "biggest concern." To wit: "This country that is based on Judeo-Christian principles has given in to the people who might be offended if we have the Ten Commandments someplace and if our children pray in school. And I think somebody better start talking about that."
Try as he might, Kerry just couldn't find a graceful way to retreat before this unhittable curveball. "Well, Catherine, I--I--you know, I'm not sure, I--I'm very understanding and very sympathetic to what you just said. I--I--I know where you're coming from, and I don't hesitate to talk about--when asked--my faith, or what I believe. Or don't believe." But "I do believe there's an appropriate separation where we are a nation of people of all faiths. And of no faith. That's who we are as a country." The poor fellow blundered on like this for quite some time. Catherine Williamson sat stony-faced with her arms folded resolutely across her chest.
In his more controlled, set-speech campaign appearances, Kerry likes to quote Bill Clinton on the only reason why Republicans are sometimes able to outmaneuver Democrats on Election Day: "Strong and wrong" beats "right and weak" every time. Well, here's a new one for you senator, try it on for size: Diffident and shrewd, like Howard Dean, is gonna beat amiable and relatively guileless, like John Kerry, more times than John Kerry can probably afford.
Kerry has an easier go of it this evening at his own Newton meet-and-greet, also in Uncle Nancy's Coffeehouse. And also with Norma Jean Sharp in attendance. She's back, almost 12 hours after her encounter with Howard Dean, to do a little side-by-side comparison shopping. And she decides she "much prefers" the amiable and guileless model. She "particularly" likes Kerry's answer on Israel: "I have always supported Israel. . . . In the end, Israel is the only democracy and Israel is our ally." The subject of abortion never comes up. I don't have the heart to tell Ms. Sharp that Kerry, too, is a pro-choice 100 percenter. That'll be President Bush's job, if and when the time comes. And if he dares.
Iowa State Fairgrounds, August 15
Kerry tried to get himself onto this morning's front pages by criticizing--demagogically and, it would later turn out, inaccurately--the Bush administration's role in a complicated dispute with Congress over Defense Department bookkeeping and supplementary pay for front-line troops in Iraq. That was fun. Dennis Kucinich first had to be verbally coaxed into taking his assigned seat next to Gov. Vilsack--and then had trouble finding his way out of the auditorium. No, not that set of stairs, Mr. Congressman; it leads to the balcony. At last Kucinich reached the stage-left curtain--only to pop back into view in search of a lost bottle of mineral water. Several hundred people laughed out loud. Which was even better fun.
Howard Dean was unremarkable--except when he attempted to explain how "one of the biggest problems" driving medical cost inflation "is us." He seems to have been talking about the need for "wellness" and prevention programs. But the analogy he adopted was bewildering. Last year, Dean offered, his son needed an emergency appendectomy. And Dean, he ruefully admitted, had responded selfishly: He'd wanted the best of everything for his boy, and he'd expected the insurance company to pay the max. The lesson of this parable, Dean concluded, was that "we all have responsibility" for health care cost containment.
This was just plain weird. What "wellness" steps exactly, was Howard Dean's son supposed to have taken to ward off appendicitis? And what kind of father even thinks to blame himself in retrospect for automatically asking the world on behalf of a seriously ill child? Dean staffers have long known, all too well, that they're gonna have to find ways to humanize their less-than-lovable candidate. And late yesterday they made an initial stab at it, having booked him for an after-work, man-bites-dog musical performance at a blues-club dive not far from Dean-campaign headquarters on the western edge of Des Moines's downtown. There our hero removed his suit jacket, and even his tie, played two tunes' worth of reasonably accomplished though rudimentary guitar, and then closed, on harmonica, with a perfectly goofball anthem--"Dean for America"--written specially for the occasion by local bandleader Michael "Hawkeye" Herman.
It was a standard, 12-bar, I-IV-V chord blues in G, the easiest key for elementary and rusty middle-aged harp-blowers alike. And Dean did not embarrass himself, for the most part, though it wasn't clear he'd agree with that assessment; he seemed mighty uncomfortable to me.
Whatever. The only other interesting news from yesterday was that Sen. Joseph Lieberman would make a previously unscheduled appearance here at the Iowa State Fair this morning.
Lieberman's campaign is limping in lots of places around the country, but in Iowa it's a veritable shambles--mostly because the candidate can't seem to decide whether he should be bothering with the caucuses at all. Friends like John McCain tell him no, he shouldn't: The caucuses are a byzantine, insider steeplechase controlled by the most doctrinaire, party-regular activists--among whom Lieberman's moderate political profile, especially his uniquely dogged support for the Iraq war, is bubonic-plague-level anathema. It's the closest thing to guaranteed that Lieberman can't finish in the money here, so what's the point of trying? Better he should move on to New Hampshire, where the Democratic primary is an "open" one--open, that is, to the independent and crossover voters who would seem to comprise Lieberman's natural base of appeal.
And yet. There's that permanent and infernal pundits-in-the-greenroom, cable-news channel primary to consider: Abandoning Iowa, this early in the presidential calendar at any rate, would surely occasion a great lot of punishing, "Lieberman death watch" chatter on "Crossfire" and the "Capital Gang." Also, the senator has close friends in Iowa, like his local campaign chairman, state attorney general Tom Miller. And Lieberman, a stand-up guy if ever there was one, can't be too eager to let friends like these down.
So he winds up spending very little time here; while most of his rivals were traipsing around the state doing push-ups on hog farms earlier this week, Lieberman was in San Francisco. And then, whenever, as inevitably and regularly results, the muttering about how he's "dissing Iowa" finally becomes too intense to bear--yesterday, for example--the senator scrambles to upend his schedule and pencil in a lightning-strike photo-op. As is the case today. It's the kind of compromise that satisfies nobody. Including, one suspects, the candidate himself.
At 11 this morning, at the epicenter of the State Fair's crowd-thick "Grand Concourse," Joe Lieberman is supposed to hop up onto a bale of hay--bafflingly designated a "soapbox" by its official sponsor, the Des Moines Register--and manfully pretend that he doesn't think he's doing something ridiculous. To his credit, he fails. Lieberman shows up, takes a look at the haybale, curls his lips, and turns around to address the State Fair passersby at sea level, his feet on the ground. He works his way through a first-rate, typically thinking-man-style stump speech--but punctuates it with candid asides that no "natural" politician could ever bring himself to utter. He's the only one of the nine Democrats running for president who voted for--or has anything nice to say about--a piece of Bush-approved prescription-drug legislation that was recently before the Senate. "I don't know why" that is, Lieberman quizzically notes. "It was a good bill."
Fifteen minutes later, having announced himself, with undisguised irony, "the next president of the Yew-nited States of America," he hands off his microphone and walks over to a firing squad of attending reporters, one of whom, a local, wants to know whether Lieberman will be attending yet another candidates' forum this evening, this one at a Teamsters hall in an industrial park southeast of Cedar Rapids, all the way across the state. No can do, he reminds her: It'll be Friday night--the sabbath and all.
And then it's time for the senator from Connecticut to walk over to a fast-food stand and get his picture taken eating--I'm not making this up--a "deep-fried Twinkie." Speaking of the sabbath, one wag quips to Lieberman, how can you be certain that the Twinkie is kosher? "They fry it in soy oil," the senator replies in a blink. "We actually checked that out ahead of time. Because I just knew some sonofabitch would want to know."
David Tell is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.