The Blog

Dean's Denial

The former front-runner doesn't seemed to have learned much from his Iowa debacle.

1:00 PM, Jan 21, 2004 • By DAVID TELL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Manchester, NH

Early this past Saturday evening Howard Dean took a brief timeout from his business then still at hand -- Iowa -- to host a by-telephone press conference about some business then still ahead: his final-week stretch run here in New Hampshire. The Dean campaign seemed to be losing a bit of altitude, one of us rudely reminded him; everything--the polls, the campaign's front-line mood, what have you--seemed suddenly to favor Senators Kerry and Edwards in Iowa, and Wesley Clark in New Hampshire. What if he were to stumble a bit in the former state? Was Dean making contingency plans to shore himself up in the latter state, just in case -- or just as a matter of simple and sensible midstream adjustment?

No, actually. Or so Dean claimed, at least: "We don't think we need to change anything" in New Hampshire. Did that mean he continued to expect a win there? No, actually: "I don't think I said I expect to win New Hampshire." He was playing down his chances in both places, then? No, actually: "I do think we're gonna win Iowa."

Gov. Dean's expectations -- and most everyone else's -- have since been confounded, of course; he's gone and gotten himself thoroughly pasted in Monday's Iowa caucuses, by Kerry and Edwards both, each of whom was thought to be all but out of the race as recently as three weeks ago. What happened? How did Dean's rivals so dramatically turn things around?

Or maybe that's posing the question backwards. Maybe Dean's rivals didn't really have all that much to do with it.

Take John Kerry, for example. Two diametrically opposed -- almost mutually exclusive -- explanations for Kerry's revival now grace the newsmagazines and dailies, sometimes side by side, sometimes in the same story, even. And neither explanation seems especially persuasive.

The first, a nod to campaign-insider orthodoxy about "what you have to do to win" the Iowa caucuses (Rule Number One: Organization is Everything), holds that Kerry mounted a super-sophisticated, get-out-the-vote effort, beginning in November, under the direction of a reputedly legendary Democratic operative named Michael Whouley. Whouley is supposed to have brilliantly out-maneuvered the rest of the field, simple as that. Except that it can't have been simple at all. How could Kerry staffers have designed and implemented a months-long, race-altering statewide voter mobilization program that went completely undetected by the media, and unreflected in the polls, until the last few days of the Iowa campaign? And how important can voter mobilization have been to begin with, since Kerry's late-inning Iowa surge occurred simultaneously with the even more startling, come-from-behind finish posted by John Edwards. Whose formal get-out-the-vote apparatus, it's generally agreed, never amounted to beans.

No matter, though. We're meant to understand that Edwards had compensating "momentum" toward the close. And Kerry had it, too. Both men ultimately "found their voices," the story goes -- sharpened their messages, intensified their personal appeals, summoned inner reserves of energy and purpose as storm clouds gathered over the lonely, frozen plains. That sort of thing, the "great moments in sports" school of political science, nine parts romance for every one part fact. Sure, in the present instance, there's a fact or two involved, at least where Edwards is concerned: He did change his spots during the waning weeks of the caucus contest, ostentatiously re-branding himself as the uniquely high-road candidate in the race, the one with the "optimistic, positive, uplifting vision" who was going to "challenge our cynicism about politics" -- presumably by alerting us to the cabal of "corporate lobbyists and other special interests" who currently rule our destinies from the halls of power in Washington. Personally, I liked Edwards better back when he was merely an engaging and intelligent fresh face with an admirably detailed and interesting policy platform. But it was his self-reinvention as a goo-goo populist that clinched the Des Moines Register's endorsement -- which appears to have carried special weight with the unusually large number of Iowa voters who waited until the very last minute to make up their minds.

John Kerry's alleged recent "momentum," on the other hand, seems an entirely romantic notion to me, a species of all-purpose, can't-go-wrong political analysis in which what you have to do to win is win, and if you aren't winning you aren't doing it, and if you keep right on doing it but eventually wind up winning anyway, then . . . well, never mind about that. Never mind, for instance, that the "revitalized" John Kerry we're suddenly oohing and aahing over is virtually indistinguishable on the stump from the John Kerry who spent most of the past year watching his preference poll and fundraising numbers slowly but inexorably disappear--and hearing himself derided as a hopeless stiff, his candidacy enshrined next to John Connally's in the campaign-flop Hall of Fame.

The derision was always terribly unfair, mystifying even. Kerry's a more-or-less normal human being pursuing a more-or-less normal American political career and experiencing a more-or-less normal allotment of misfortune along the way: bad moments, bad luck, bad advice from friends, unresponsive audiences, and so forth; if all you were looking for was evidence of the cartoon Kerry -- remote, inarticulate, purposeless -- it was there to be found, no question.

But it's still there, that's the point. As is the full-color, flesh-and-blood John Kerry that was always there, too, weirdly overlooked: a smart, knowledgeable, experienced, and -- I'm sorry, there's no denying it -- vastly likable and therefore totally plausible candidate for the White House. Both Kerrys showed up last night at Pembroke Academy, a local public high school on the eastern outskirts of Concord, for a meet-the-candidate cafeteria "chili feed." Cartoon Kerry's verbal eccentricities and tendency toward dramatic overreach were especially well represented. "I don't want the words of politics to get in the way of the reality of what we're talking about," he said at one point. If elected president, he said at another, he's determined to do something about the national emergency involving "kids who can't do shapes and colors in the first grade."

It didn't matter. The holistic, real-world Kerry was finishing a triumphant first day back in New Hampshire, and the Pembroke Academy cafeteria was absolutely packed, 600 people probably, all of them enthusiastic, basking in a winner's glow. Kerry's not doing anything different. I'd say his fortunes are on the rise almost exclusively because the other fellow's fortunes have begun to show unmistakable signs of collapse.

That would be Howard Dean, though it's not clear he adequately appreciates the problem -- or has the disciplinary wherewithal adequately to redress it. Iowa Democrats had a long, lusty, wild-oats fling with Dean, and it was fun while it lasted. But when it came time to make a formal commitment they balked, hard, dumping him for Kerry and Edwards, the boring but sober and dependable boy-next-door types. Howard Dean's just not the kind of guy you bring home to mother -- an impression he's now further, and perhaps indelibly, cemented into nationwide consciousness by means of that demented "victory" speech he delivered at his final public appearance in Des Moines Monday night: the purple-faced, muscle-seizure grimaces; the hollering; the instantly infamous "yeeee-haaaw" war-whoop finale. It may turn out to have been an episode of "Muskie Weeps"-level self-destruction. And if so, it may turn out to have been a mercy for us all.

'Cause lookit: How many heat-of-the-moment slip-ups can a presidential candidate be permitted before everyone's forced to conclude that he's just not up to the job? At 3:30 a.m., in the post-"yeee-haaaw" wee hours of Tuesday morning, Howard Dean's charter flight out of Iowa touched down at Pease International Tradeport just south of Portsmouth on New Hampshire's Atlantic coast. More than 700 highly excitable young people greeted him in an adjacent hangar, where they'd been dancing self-parodically in place for almost 90 minutes ("Play that Funky Music, White Boy") and ripping off a succession of spooky unison chants: "President . . . Dean! . . . President . . . Dean!" The governor luxuriated in this adoration 'til 4 a.m., subdued by exhaustion but otherwise looking and sounding like a man who'd just received the happiest news of his life.

A half-night's sleep later, Dean reintroduced himself to several hundred of his grownup New Hampshire supporters at an 11 a.m. hotel ballroom speech in downtown Manchester. This was to have been the buttoned-down version, as his hovering staffers freely acknowledged to attending reporters: the presidential candidate who can learn from his setbacks, and continue to expand his appeal, and restrain himself from turning funny colors when the neighbors are watching -- the same, impressive Howard Dean whom I'd first laid eyes on, coincidentally enough, in the very same room, almost ten months before to the day. And he almost pulled it off. He did pull it off, in fact, for the better part of 45 minutes, conquering his audience so completely that it no longer seemed he had to try.

At which point he visibly relaxed, smiling and bouncing up and down on his toes, airport-hangar style, and let it rip. Someone asked him about parental notification restrictions on abortion; by way of reply, he very incautiously resuscitated an anecdote no one's heard him use for months -- the controversial, because curiously inapposite and possibly apocryphal tale of a 12-year-old girl made pregnant by a man then-Dr. Dean mistakenly suspected was the girl's own father. Talking to reporters a few minutes later, Dean blithely said no, "not really," he and his aides didn't think it especially urgent to figure out what might have gone wrong in Iowa; he preferred to reflect on "what went right." Did he remain optimistic about his prospects in New Hampshire? Yes, he did -- because he was from a neighboring state, so folks here knew him better, well enough to detect and reject all the obviously bogus nasty stuff that "people say and write about me," the bastards.

Late yesterday afternoon, while speaking to a rally crowd in Concord, Dean happened to notice a man mockingly -- but quietly -- holding a Confederate flag. Whereupon the governor stopped himself mid-sentence, announced his view that the flagholder ought by rights to be removed from the scene, and then stood there glowering, while the TV cameras whirred, as security guards literally dragged the poor guy away.

Yeee-haaaw.

David Tell is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.