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The Kinder, Gentler Howard Dean

The doctor finally opens up to his patients.

11:00 PM, Jan 25, 2004 • By DAVID TELL
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Manchester, New Hampshire

I HAVE THE IMPRESSION there's been a larger contingent of European reporters traveling around in the Dean campaign press pool these past few days. (And Canadians. For present analytical purposes, I suppose they ought to qualify, too.) It further seems to me, from overheard conversations, and from the questions they're asking the candidate, that these, my brothers and sisters of the overseas media, have pretty much decided that Gov. Dean will finish the New Hampshire primary with a "loss." They've also pretty much decided what that "loss" is going to mean: that the low-brow beast of American mass politics has awakened from its slumbers and devoured a brave, good man leading a campaign of rare sophistication and refinement. As inevitably happens here in the States, let's face it.

Much this same view of things appears widely held among the people who are showing up for Howard Dean's New Hampshire stretch-run campaign events. Not the part about losing, mind you. The overnight tracking polls, unreliable and wildly divergent though they may be, all suggest that Dean has arrested his post-Iowa slide, and will head into the primary's closing 48 hours with his core support intact: let's say 20 percent or so of Tuesday's likely turnout. These are die-hards--and die-hards who've developed an unusually intense, self-idealizing emotional investment in their candidate --so the prospect of actual defeat probably isn't something they've allowed themselves to think about all that much. If and when it comes, I'm sure it will distress them plenty.

Distress them plenty, that is, but leave the Dean-rally denizens' basic, mythological understanding of the 2004 campaign otherwise undisturbed. The mythology is very Old Europe, you might say. Look for it, win or lose, in next Wednesday's edition of Le Monde: Setting out in all directions from Burlington, Vermont, a gathering vanguard of American civilization rode into mortal combat with the Christian right, the Fortune 500, the red-states lumpenproletariat, and the Democratic Leadership Council. Good versus evil. Poets versus jocks. Cloth diapers versus Pampers (at least for that first 24 hours home from the hospital).

Of course, it used to be, just a couple weeks ago, that the governor's public appearances were drawing a fair number of less enlightened types, as well--not just the gathering vanguard of American civilization. But far as I can tell, those folks have mostly stopped coming; it's just the vanguard now.

Early Saturday afternoon in New Castle, Dean held a "town hall" meeting at "Wentworth By the Sea," a mammoth and "restoration"-marred Victorian resort hotel perched on a little bluff overlooking one of the East Coast's most beautiful Atlantic bays. There were a couple hundred people jammed into the building's ballroom, with an overflow crowd listening in by loudspeaker from an adjacent antechamber. Consistent with the Dean campaign's recent practice, the event began 45 minutes late, and, just as consistently, it began with a series of personal conversion-experience testimonials : "How I was led to reborn hope about American politics by the Gospel of Howard," that kind of thing.

First up was a young local woman who--just like millions of young local women all across this great country of ours--recently attended college in Scotland. There she discovered the blessings of universal healthcare coverage, provided through the British government's National Health system. ("It's better in Scotland," a friendly English fellow standing next to me offered reassuringly.) Well, you can imagine: The contrast of Scottish medical services with those in her own, more primitive, Hobbesian homeland made this fair lass ashamed. Come graduation, she told us, "I returned to the U.S. terribly disillusioned"--and "the 2000 election only made it worse." But she's better now. Governor Dean has arrived on the nation's political stage, and our heroine has once again dared dream of a day when . . . well, you get the idea. Two other people followed this young lady to the microphone and gave similarly-styled witness. Then, finally, it was the candidate's turn.

THE NEW, post-Iowa, post-Diane Sawyer Howard Dean is still fighting a cold, still a bit hoarse, and still delivering the same essential stump speech. But it appears he's trying to deliver it with "friendlier," one-big-happy-family atmospherics. Some of this literally involves his family; Dean's mother, Andree, was seated behind him on the stage in New Castle, for example. Dean's wife, Judy, campaigned with him all day yesterday, and will join him again for most of the day today.

But the governor seems also to be inviting a broader, family-like connection with his audience as a whole, slightly but noticeably relaxing his famous reluctance to make other-than-political self-disclosures. Howard Dean, belatedly acquiescing to the cultural expectations that have been imposed on presidential candidates since time began, now wants his would-be voters to understand that it's not simply tax policy or the war in Iraq that they have in common with him. It's ordinary, daily, human stuff, too: I'm just like you.

If he'd figured out how important an idea this was six months ago--if he'd spent all that time consciously trying to avoid setting half the country's teeth on edge--things might have turned out differently, I don't know. The warmer, cuddlier Howard Dean that's been on display this weekend--at the "Every Woman Counts" event he and Mrs. Dean attended late yesterday afternoon up in Hanover, for example--is a not-entirely-unattractive political product.

But there's a problem with Dean becoming just like you so late in the campaign, after so precipitous a week-long plummet in the polls: The you in question, the people who come see him on the stump, the people with whom he's finally willing to share some personal sense of identification, aren't the people he needs to win over. As I say, those people haven't been showing up too much lately. What Dean's left with, instead, are audiences filled with pre-existing supporters who'd love him even if he weren't suddenly asking them to. And these are supporters among whom--how to put this politely?--a certain self-selected and culturally self-conscious subdemographic appears to be heavily overrepresented.

Ah, the hell with it: These people are a cartoon, the fleshly embodiment of every upper-middleclass stereotype ever invented. I'll give you a single--but, I swear, hardly atypical--for-instance from Saturday's "Wentworth by the Sea" confab. Dean was doing his now-standard rap about the "increasing concentration of the media" and how it's a "huge problem" that nowadays 90 percent of Americans purportedly get all their information from the same eleven corporations. It matters a great deal where you get your information from, the governor explained. After all, a full 80 percent of people who watch Fox, along with 50 percent of people who watch CNN, still think Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. But "if you listen to NPR, only 30 percent" of you are likely to make such a boneheaded mistake.

The moment Dean mentioned NPR, his audience--I'm not making this up--erupted into cheers and applause. "I must confess," the governor then modestly acknowledged, "I am an NPR fan, too"--I'm just like you--which brought him a second, even louder round of cheers and applause. A couple minutes later, a balding, nerdy, middle-aged man rose from his seat in the crowd and told the governor that he and his wife were also "avid NPR fans--and avid Howard Dean fans." More cheers and more applause.

I listen to NPR myself, you understand. But really, now. When Howard Dean says he's just like you to people just like this, I have to believe that, if anything, he's limiting his popular appeal, not expanding it.

But perhaps I make too much of this newer, nicer Howard Dean and the yuppier, yuckier crowds he's stuck with. The old Howard Dean remains very much in business, still barking at the neighbors and digging up their flower beds. This was the Dean who, before he left the stage at "Wentworth By the Sea," got off a dig at President Bush more wince-makingly tasteless and spectacularly vicious than any I've ever heard him use before. Bush is clueless about the need for alternative sources of energy, Dean sneered; "We simply have a president with a substance abuse problem . . . spelled O-I-L."

Then there's what happened at the little mini-press-conference Dean held half an hour later. The final question went to one of the European correspondents I was mentioning earlier, a man with a heavy German accent. "As a presidential candidate you have bold ideas and you speak courageously, I think," this fellow began. And then he asked Dean something, and I'd tell you what it was, except that the rest of us by then were snickering so loudly at our German colleague's sub-professional sycophancy that my tape recording is a garble.

Governor Dean, for his part, summoned the discipline not to snicker. But the sarcasm in his smile was unmistakable. And his answer was curtly, brutally, elegantly dismissive.

I had to admire him for that.

David Tell is opinion editor at The Weekly Standard.