The Magazine

The Dean Clap

From the January 26, 2004 issue: . . . and other manifestations of political enthusiasm.

Jan 26, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 19 • By DAVID TELL
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Curious about this young man's background, I asked him for his name, which he gave me--Sam Simon--though only after a hesitant, sidelong glance at a woman who was evidently his staff superior. I wondered how old he was and where he was from. That he wouldn't give me. "Um, that's all I think I can say," he mumbled, turning to the boss lady for relief. "He wants to know how old I am and where I'm from," he told her. He'd have to go consult with "someone from Press," she instructed him. And so he did. Several minutes later, Sam Simon, who'd already been assigned to tell 300 perfect strangers that his brother and sister were gay, finally secured someone's permission to disclose that he was 19 years old and a native of New Mexico.

I have had numerous experiences like this with representatives of the Dean campaign. I imagine it's what covering a Scientology convention must feel like.

The candidate himself did eventually show up, 40 minutes or so into the proceedings. They did The Dean Clap again, and he ran through an unremarkable iteration of his current standard stump talk. Then Dean took about 20 minutes worth of questions, the last of which involved a low-voiced gentleman remarking that "elections are won in the center, not on the right nor on the left, and Bill Clinton taught us that." So "how and why and what is your strategy to capture the center," this man asked Dean, "so people like Rove and others don't depict you as a liberal, northeastern, bleeding-heart, kneejerk, et cetera?"

They're going to say that about us no matter who we nominate, Dean replied. And then he ran through an equally unremarkable iteration of his candidacy's central, organizing myth. "Rove and Ralph Reed" win elections for Republicans because they know how to "polarize the country and crank up their base," Dean explained. Democrats have to do the same. "You've got to really get the base excited." You've got to "energize disillusioned Democrats" and "get two million people in this country to give us $100 apiece," which they'll "gladly" do.

This is snake oil, of course, and it is already beginning to leak into view even from such unlikely places as the Dean campaign's own website, which had promised to "sign up" at least a million supporters by New Year's, and is still today, three weeks later, more than 400,000 supporters short. The number of new financial contributors the campaign attracted actually declined from the third quarter of last year to the fourth. Dean is not a "sweetheart," let's face it; he is chilly and abrasive and unusually prone to growl and bite. It's not really fair to call him a "left-wing freak show," but only because the ideological character of a prospective Dean administration is virtually unknowable: The man's campaign platform--I can't understand why more hasn't been made of this--is thinly articulated where it exists at all.

And so on, the point being that there is a clear upper limit to Howard Dean's support. As might be said of all the other Democratic candidates and George Bush, too, admittedly. But unlike the others, Dean has embraced his limits--rejecting "the center"--and declared them a virtue. And his present supporters love him all the more for it. That is what truly distinguishes them, not where they went to college or how many nose rings they have. It is a matter of temperament, elemental self-conception, more than anything else. Democrats good; Republicans bad. No series of gaffes Dean might commit, no surging poll numbers posted by one of his rivals, can dramatically affect such an orthodoxy or its adherents. And there are a godawful lot of them, apparently.

The point being that there is also a clear lower floor to Dean's support, below which he likely cannot fall. That rhythmic, tribal clap will be in our ears for quite some time yet.

David Tell is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.