The Magazine

A Not-So-Unstoppable Frontrunner

From the October 13, 2003 issue: The Dean campaign's rendezvous with reality.

Oct 13, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 05 • By DAVID TELL
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NOT UNTIL SOMETHING like the first of August did conventional Washington opinion finally wake up to the possibility that this mad-as-hell, antiwar Howard Dean fellow might just have a realistic shot at the Democratic presidential nomination. But after that it was off to the races. In no time flat, and based on the very same evidence that had awakened them in the first place, the conventional opinion people started upgrading Dean's candidacy from the realistic to the highly promising and beyond, as if he'd all but sewn things up. "The former Vermont governor may be"--thus spake cable-news oracle William Schneider on August 5--"unstoppable." Unstoppable, for example, even in the intricate, union and party-machine dominated caucus politics of Iowa, where a Des Moines Register poll had Howard Dean (23 percent), the self-described insurgent, vaulting into a rulebook-defying lead over his much better-known and better-wired rivals. Both presumed labor-movement favorite Dick Gephardt (21 percent) and presumed national frontrunner John Kerry (14 percent) were said to be running inert and perilously buzz-deficient campaigns.

No doubt the Register poll was a perfectly accurate, summer snapshot of Iowa sentiment about the top three guys, Dean, Gephardt, and Kerry--among, that is, the slight majority of likely Democratic caucus-goers then inclined to express a sentiment for either Dean or Gephardt or Kerry. Fully 42 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers were not yet so inclined, however, either because they hadn't got around to deciding whom to root for, or because they were still prepared, for the time being at least, to root for one of the underdogs:

Joe Lieberman, maybe, whose strategists concede that he can't even "start to win the nomination" until after New Hampshire, and who meantime hardly pretends to be contesting Iowa. Or Carol Moseley-Braun, who hardly pretends to be contesting anywhere. Or John Edwards, who's been stumping everywhere, rarely failing to win excellent reviews--but rarely managing to win appreciable support. Or Dennis Kucinich, whose appreciable support, his press releases boast, includes endorsements from such "prominent activists" as "spiritual teacher" Ram Dass, best known for his enthusiastic, bulk-quantity consumption of LSD. Or Bob Graham, to whom a Ram Dass endorsement might look pretty good right about now. Or Al Sharpton, who is Al Sharpton.

It's not quite right to say, as spokesmen for single-digit candidates like these always do, that state-specific horserace polls like the Register's, conducted six months before the state in question will cast its votes, are "meaningless." Not even the national polls are "meaningless." (Though they probably ought to be; as recently as a few weeks ago, somewhere between a third and a half of all Democrats were still telling survey researchers that no, they hadn't any opinion, favorable or otherwise, about their party's purportedly unstoppable phenomenon, Howard Dean--because they'd never heard of him.) For good or ill, it's an inescapable fact that certain key groups of people--the kind who make out contribution checks and put up yard signs--do pay exaggerated attention to early polling numbers, using them as tips about who's worth working for and who's a waste of time. And all things being equal, the more money and footsoldier assistance a worth-it candidate attracts, the better he's able to sell himself to voters who'll answer future polls--which then attract further donors and volunteers, and so on.

But all things are not equal, and the good-poll-begets-help-begets-victory algorithm becomes less and less reliable as time goes by. For the most part, truly marginal presidential campaigns just don't last very long nowadays. The snows come and the campaigns die, and their would-be supporters are cast out among the still-undecided, all of them forced to choose, from the winnowed field, someone new to vote for. And it is not a choice that ordinary voters typically resolve on the basis of which candidate had a two-point lead in the polls six months ago. Four years ago, in October 1999, just three months shy of the balloting, Bill Bradley had a seven-point lead over Al Gore in New Hampshire, had closed to within three points in Iowa, and had a several-hundred-thousand-dollar war chest advantage, too. Bradley wound up getting crushed.

In other words: Howard Dean's current top-dog status in the Democratic presidential sweepstakes is a dependable indicator that he will eventually win the nomination only to the extent that his current top-dog status is the product of factors that his rivals are powerless to alter. So what might those factors be?

THERE'S A STANDARD two-part explanation for why Iowa's Democratic caucus electorate, a third or more of it derived from labor-movement households, hasn't long since rolled over for Dick Gephardt, who's got a truckload of union endorsements. One: Iowa Democrats disapprove of the president's war with Iraq, which Gephardt voted to authorize. Two: Gephardt's executive-committee union endorsements are as deep as it goes. The rank-and-file memberships view him with no particular enthusiasm. They tend to prefer--or so suggested the Des Moines Register poll--Howard Dean instead.

And yet: Less than two weeks after that poll was released, I twice in three days watched Gephardt speak to sizable Iowa union audiences, the second one a mammoth Friday evening candidates' forum in Cedar Rapids, and both times he received a positively rapturous response. At neither event could I find a single rank-and-filer in the crowd who had much bad to say about him. In Cedar Rapids, further confounding the usual who's-for-whom account of things, I did find one local labor dignitary willing to volunteer his profound contempt for Gephardt's current presidential ambitions. It wasn't the war, or any other issue, that was bugging this man. His animus was driven by a purely political calculation: He didn't think Gephardt had the spine to "dethrone" President Bush. Not after what happened in last year's midterm congressional elections: "A lot of union people spent money they didn't have, volunteered time they didn't have. Dick Gephardt was the Democratic leader. And Tom Daschle. And we were off in the wilderness. No idea what the party was supposed to stand for. We shoulda taken back the House. And I, personally, just can't get over that."

Was it this gentleman's sense that a similar resistance to Gephardt's candidacy might be bubbling under the surface throughout the labor movement generally? "No, it isn't," he conceded. "If it were, he wouldn't be getting all these endorsements." Okay, how about those labor people who did share his feelings on the matter? If not Dick Gephardt, then who? Would it be safe to suppose--the Register poll and whatnot--that he himself would be voting for Dean? "No, I'm for John Kerry, have been from the start," again for reasons having nothing at all to do with the war, which Kerry, too, voted to authorize. Why Kerry and not Dean, I wondered? "It's kinda hard to explain. [Dean] just kind of rubs me the wrong way. A kind of arrogance. I know he tries to work on it. But it just doesn't come off as natural." It turned out that the master of ceremonies that evening, Ray Dochterman, the president of the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Building Trades, also preferred Kerry to Dean. When it was Kerry's turn to take the stage, to almost-Gephardt-level thunderous applause, Dochterman wrote him out a surprise-gift $1,000 personal check, right there on the spot.

And when it was Howard Dean's turn to take the stage, things got more surprising still. Early on in his remarks, as you would expect, Dean brought up the subject that had most energized his campaign and best distinguished him from his principal competitors. "I did not support the war in Iraq, and let me tell you why," he began, before being interrupted by a standing ovation--from about a third of the room. The other two thirds stayed seated. A fair number of them grimaced. Among the grimacers, one woman from Iowa--"Just call me 'one woman from Iowa,'" she later instructed me--noticed that I was looking at her and flushed red in the face. By which point Dean had finished with Iraq and moved on to George W. Bush's spoliation of America's domestic economy. "How many of you have lost a job in the last twelve months?" he asked the crowd. Maybe twenty people, out of more than a thousand, raised their hands. Dean attempted to recover: "How many of you have a family member who's lost a job in the last twelve months?" A couple dozen more hands, tops. Only when Dean had extended the unemployment list to friends and acquaintances did his stunt produce its intended visual effect. And pretty soon after that, it was time for someone else to talk.

And pretty soon after that, it was time for me to seek out "one woman from Iowa," apologize for peering at her as I had, and ask her why she'd flushed red during that business about the war. Whereupon she flushed red again: "You were up front by the stage. I thought you worked for Howard Dean. My nephew was in Baghdad. And now he's in Kuwait City. And Howard Dean oughta shut the f-- up."

A genuinely "unstoppable" Democratic primary campaign, propelled by party-wide fury against a Republican president and his awful foreign war--that campaign wouldn't quite have looked like this, would it? Couldn't it simply be, instead, that Dean was a talented, intelligent, credible, but fallible candidate who'd earned an early lead in Iowa, as much as anything else, by spending lots more time and advertising dollars there--and sooner--than the other talented, intelligent, credible, and fallible candidates in the race? Couldn't it therefore be, as well, that the Democratic presidential nomination remained entirely up for grabs? What would happen, for example, when Democratic primary voters were offered a view of the candidates not just as solo stump-speechmakers, but as directly engaged competitors, with each man's personality and policy platform undergoing an extensive, full-stress test? What would happen when everybody started really whaling on Howard Dean?

Well, they're whaling on him now. And he's not bearing up in what anyone could seriously call unstoppable fashion.

SUBTLER APPRAISALS of campaign mechanics and strategy are not so important in this analysis. It doesn't matter that Dean has raised a lot more cash than Dick Gephardt has; it matters only that Gephardt has a powerful argument to make against Dean, and enough money to fight it out at par for at least another couple of months. It doesn't matter that Joe Lieberman's longshot wait-till-February plan has no successful modern precedent. Or that his intended position as the field's "moderate," given the Democratic party's current, ideologically irritable mood, would probably get Lieberman involuntarily recharacterized as the "rightmost" candidate, and therefore rejected, under any circumstances. It matters only that Lieberman, too, has a powerful argument to make against Dean, and that he has the wit and obvious determination and wherewithal to stick with his plan past New Hampshire, arguing all the way. Lieberman may not win. But his continued presence in the race could go far to determine who does. Ditto for John Kerry, except that he still has an excellent chance to be that winner. So what if Kerry's campaign has had some staff turnover, which all of 300 people in the Western Hemisphere are aware of? So what if he's sometimes "wooden" with a typescript speech and a TelePrompTer? He works a room better than Dean does. He's a slicker debater. He's got plenty of money in the bank. You'd rather have him as your dinner companion. And Kerry, like the others, has a powerful--particularly versatile--argument to make.

Moreover, Howard Dean is now, if anything, less well equipped to respond to unflattering arguments than he was back in the spring, back before he became unstoppable, back before most people would have guessed he'd ever be goable, in fact. On the day I spent watching him canvass New Hampshire last March, he was an Upper East Side, Type-A version of the mid-1980s Bill Clinton. He was purposefully eclectic, one step removed from certain of his party's orthodoxies--but only one step, and not always in a coherently similar direction. He had an apparently inexhaustible supply of otherwise dull and indigestibly complicated policy-wonk programs to discuss, but was able and eager to translate them into engrossing, plain-English narratives. And he was opposed to the war before opposition to the war was cool. In short, at the very beginning, Dean was mounting a meticulously planned introductory incursion into big-league national politics; he had anticipated every conceivable obstacle in his path; and he was interesting.

But by the end of the summer, he had become deliberately less interesting. "Frontrunner" designations very often have a baleful psychological effect on successful campaigns. The frontrunning candidate has more to lose and thus less reason to take risk. Substantive politics is risky, so the frontrunning candidate is inclined to avoid it. Enveloped in the excitement his progress has created, he tends to lose track of the necessary distinctions involved; maintaining the excitement becomes his campaign's central daily activity. And then it becomes the central purpose: The candidate begins to run a campaign about itself. About how much money it's raised, and how many people have signed up on its website, and how it's going to conduct the world's largest-ever conference call, and MeetUp.com, and isn't it all just sooo a-ma-zing?

This is what seems lately to have occurred with Howard Dean. Now the Dean campaign no longer just steers cautiously clear of dangerous or unfamiliar policy terrain; it explicitly disdains to go there. What are mere issues, after all, when you have just produced "a month that will change politics forever," a "September to Remember"? "It is true that the current debate must focus on specific aspects of particular programs," campaign spokeswoman Tricia Enright announced two weeks ago, "but Governor Dean believes the debate is also about something much larger: It is about what sort of country we will be in the future." And it can only be the proper "sort"--as Dean himself explained at a big speech in Boston's Copley Square the day before--provided we first "take back our country," with "mouse pads, shoe leather, and hope," from "a king named George," whose attendant "narrow band of right-wing ideologues have subverted the democratic process." Hark! "Democracy itself is at stake in this election."

There is the predictable level of bumper-sticker grandiosity every presidential campaign emits like car exhaust. And then there is this: the broken-muffler variety, a vaguely "progressive," cyber-savvy transmogrification of Pat Buchanan, up to and including the "King George" and peasant-rebellion material. Howard Dean is smart enough to know better, of course. But the additional supporters such rhetoric tends to attract may not be. And there are more and more of them every day, sprinkled through his street rallies, always dominating his official blog. It is a type. Each of us knows someone like this, or was one himself while in college: people who imagine themselves righteously "political," but actually have little practical experience or understanding of politics, and consequently little concern for its daily requirements and limitations. These are undependable supporters, in other words, to whom politics is primarily a vehicle for the projection of an idealized sensibility, not a set of plans and convictions. The chosen candidate is their mirror. They will love him--"I want to have your baby!" the Washington Post reports hearing one transfixed young woman yell at a recent Dean rally--until they don't anymore.

So long as they do love and gravitate toward him, however, Howard Dean will increasingly be confronted by the seduction of audiences he needn't be all that careful with, because even the very worst imaginable verbal misstep may sail right past their heads. It's happened already.

Thus we have "Pablo," reporting September 4 to the Dean campaign blog about some momentous developments the night before:

I was at the Santa Fe, NM meetup last night at The Tribes Coffeehouse. The Dean "tribe" was out in force, as well as a lot of curious Kucinich supporters (SF has a strong Kucinich group, I should know, I used to be one myself). The Gov. stopped in after having a fundraiser a few blocks away. He was obviously very tired and everyone thought he would speak for just a few minutes. Dean spoke and answered questions for at least a half hour, by the end of his talk the energy in the room was definitely rising, contagious. I'm sure there are a few less folks in the Kucinich camp after last night. The debate should be awesome!!

As it was, the candidates' debate Pablo mentioned, later that day in Albuquerque, was only half-awesome. It was there that Joe Lieberman made his televised pounce on Dean's still controversial, only partially retracted suggestion to the Washington Post that the United States, its NAFTA and World Trade Organization obligations notwithstanding, should abandon bilateral trade with any country that fails to observe environmental and labor-protection regulations as strict as our own. Lieberman pointed out that Dean was thereby proposing that America suspend its commercial arrangements with nearly the entire world. Which "would cost us millions of jobs," and "the Bush recession would be followed by the Dean depression." Lieberman had--and still has--a real issue here. There is a not insubstantial, rich and influential constituency for free trade within the Democratic party. Dean must be making these constituents awfully nervous.

Lieberman would have had two real issues at once, dramatically elevating the Albuquerque debate's awesomeness quotient, had someone on Lieberman's staff been fortunate enough, earlier in the day, before the debate, to chance upon a certain Associated Press dispatch from the always estimable Ron Fournier. Pablo, it turned out, had not been the only reporter at The Tribes Coffeehouse the night of September 3. Pablo was just the only one who'd failed to report, probably because its significance had escaped him, the highly peculiar commentary Dean had offered on the Middle East peace process. As quoted by the AP's Fournier:

I don't believe stopping the terror has to be a prerequisite for talking, you always talk. I don't find it convenient to blame people. Nobody should have violence, ever. But they do, and it's not our place to take sides. We all know that enormous numbers of the settlements that are there are going to have to come out.

It might seem to have been Gov. Dean's position, then, that Palestinians should not be blamed for terrorism, that negotiations should proceed irrespective of terrorism's continuing death toll, that the United States should meanwhile pressure "enormous numbers" of Israelis to relocate within narrower borders--and that official adoption of such a policy would somehow constitute a restoration of American honest-broker fairness, the implication being that the Bush administration had tilted its affections too far in Israel's direction. Four days after the fact, Lieberman's people did finally catch sight of Fournier's story, which discovery produced a campaign press release calling Dean's remarks "either a major break in a half a century of American foreign policy," or evidence that the man needed to "think before he talks." John Kerry joined the criticism. As did many other people and institutions, in fairly short order, notably including 34 Democratic House members led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Even today, some of those Democrats remain bitterly dissatisfied with Dean's subsequent, multiple attempts to mitigate his blunder. "It's bull--," Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York told The Hill late last week. "Dean said his position is my position is Clinton's position, which it's not."

A Democratic congressman does not ordinarily employ such language to describe another Democrat who's leading an "unstoppable" charge to the Oval Office. He holds his tongue instead. But no one is holding his tongue about Howard Dean at this point. Within the space of just a single business day, Friday September 12:

(1) Dick Gephardt unloaded a multimedia barrage of archival newsclips in which Howard Dean is revealed to have (a) endorsed a Gingrich-era, "Republican Revolution," Medicare cost-containment plan that the Clinton administration and congressional Democrats hotly opposed; (b) called the existing Medicare setup "one of the worst federal programs ever"; and (c) flirted with Social Security benefit rollbacks, too. Some of these clips are rather old, but Gephardt can't seriously be accused of using them unfairly. And what would the effect be were he to use them unceasingly--in, say, $200,000 television attack ads during the run-up to the Iowa caucuses? One can only guess. But "unstoppable Howard Dean" is not the first phrase that comes to mind.

(2) John Kerry, revisiting one of the several tributary controversies resulting from Dean's Santa Fe coffeehouse Middle East policy fiasco, and doing so, in context, very close to the boundaries of demagoguery, accused Dean of "going out of his way" to call Hamas militants "soldiers" rather than "terrorists." According to Kerry, "Governor Dean insults the memory of every innocent man, woman, and child killed by these suicidal murderers."

(3) Amplifying a much less unsavory and--elementary political logic would suggest--considerably more powerful line of attack he had been tentatively employing against Dean (and Dick Gephardt) for several months already, Kerry made clear in media interviews that he will campaign as the Democratic protector of middle-class pocketbooks. Some parts of President Bush's $1.7 trillion tax cut would be retained by a successor Kerry administration. "If you're a $40,000 income earner," the senator pointed out, not inaccurately, "Howard Dean's going to raise your taxes more than 20 times. And I don't want to do that."

(4) Al Sharpton demanded that Dean retract his support for the Michigan primary's voting-by-Internet plan. African Americans own fewer computers, and . . . well, you know.

Dean is indignant in the face of all these nasty words. He is vengefully indignant sometimes: "I think what Joe and the others are doing on the Middle East is despicable." And he is cloyingly indignant other times: "It is a sad day for Dick Gephardt when he compares any Democratic candidate running for president to Newt Gingrich." But whatever the tone, the essential and only strategic defense initiative Howard Dean has so far proved willing and able to undertake is the cry of foul. He declines to engage and rebut his accusers on the specifics of their accusations. And he declines to issue detailed, retaliatory charges of his own. This, too, is a habit inconsistent with political unstoppability. Again, one is reminded of the Gore-Bradley primary battle of late 1999.

Gore, playing Dick Gephardt in the relevant analogy, and hoping to kill off Bradley, playing Dean, gave an early December speech that contained the following, much publicized, soon-to-be incessantly repeated, mimeographed, and distributed line: "Let me sum up by saying this to Senator Bradley. It is wrong to destroy Medicaid; it's wrong to ignore Medicare, and it is wrong to cut Social Security benefits and play games with nursing homes and our seniors' retirement." Bradley replied thusly: "I think we've reached a sad day in our political life in this country when the sitting vice president distorts a fellow Democrat's record because he thinks he can score a few political points." Bradley's candidacy wilted almost overnight. Dean's might, too--under this or any of several other, completely anodyne, textbook, Campaign-School 101 scenarios.

ONE OBVIOUS, remaining question thus arises: What is this retired General Wesley Clark tulip frenzy all about? He has been hustled onto the presidential primary stage by some of the canniest and hardest-eyed operatives in the Democratic party, people who do not hire and fire staff, and make decisions about the expenditure of millions of dollars, and stay up half the night six days each week "for fun." And yet the only passably plausible rationale anyone has so far been able to offer for Clark's candidacy is "electability": that Clark is uniquely "electable," as an Iraq war critic who can appeal to Bush-phobic Democratic base voters, and as a career military officer who is immune to the question-your-patriotism smear campaign Karl Rove would surely unleash to devastating effect against the likes of Howard Dean. Trouble is, for one thing: By the time Clark formally announced himself a contender, this passably plausible rationale had become empirically unsustainable. President Bush has had a dreadful run of news these past few months. His poll-reported "reelect" numbers have consequently drooped. So much so, in fact, that by now there's been at least one national poll in which each of four different Democrats--Kerry, Gephardt, Lieberman, and even the unstoppable but unelectable Howard Dean--has outpointed Bush.

Why should Democrats want so very badly to stop Howard Dean, in that case? Assuming a persuasive and practical affirmative answer to that question could be identified, why should Democrats require the assistance of Wesley Clark to do the deed? Is Clark better situated to slap Dean around about middle-class tax cuts, or is Kerry?

And can Clark himself stand up under serious political fire? This is a major-party candidate for president of the United States who has no discernible platform; his current proposal on health care is eventually to develop a proposal on health care. He has no discernible partisan profile; he has several times in the past few weeks been caught in fibs about his current party registration. He hasn't a natural politician's rudimentary instincts; he patronized the locals on his very first campaign appearance ("That's a real Iowa outfit!" he cooed to a woman wearing overalls). Forget the polls. Bush and Rove would slaughter this guy.

Who'll stop Clark?

David Tell is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.