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Revised Predictions

Dean's bitter-enders; Clark's mania; Kerry's coasting; and Edwards's populism: What if they held a primary and everyone lost?

12:30 PM, Jan 27, 2004 • By DAVID TELL
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Manchester, New Hampshire

YESTERDAY, the final full day of campaigning in the New Hampshire primary, began--for me, anyway--at Timoleon's, a Main Street coffee shop in Keene, about an hour and a bit west of here. The restaurant's owner, Timoleon "Lindy" Chakalos, is a big-time Civil War buff and Lincoln admirer. Prominently displayed on the wall over the diner's stool counter, for example, is a paper cutout of the Railsplitter's head that's been taped to a chalkboard on which Lindy has carefully copied out the "malice toward none" passage from the Second Inaugural, among the half-dozen greatest pieces of oratory in all recorded human history. Shortly before 10:00 a.m. yesterday, Honest Abe was looking down on a crowd of about 50 in Timoleon's, more than half of us from the media, as retired Gen. Wesley Clark, standing on a table up front near the door, delivered . . . well, it wasn't one of the half-dozen greatest pieces of oratory in all recorded human history, let's put it that way. Here's the thing in its entirety, just so's nobody thinks I'm being unfair:

This is the final day of the week before the election. And New Hampshirites will go to the polls and they will vote and they will make the decision and it's gonna be a big part of who becomes the next president of the United States.

I'm running for this office to bring a higher standard of leadership to Washington. I'm an outsider. I'm not part of the problems in Washington. I've never taken money from lobbyists. I've never cut a deal. I've never run for votes. I've never cut deals for votes. I'm not part of the problem that's gone wrong in this government. And I am someone who's put his life on the line to serve this country for my entire adult life.

I was in one war I came home from on a stretcher with a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. My son was a lieutenant in the Army. I believe in our veterans. I believe in public service. And I led our forces in another war that saved a million and a half people. If you want someone to get us out of a war, you elect a general who's been in a war and knows how little can be accomplished by fighting.

I'm the only person in this race who's ever done serious foreign policy and been where the rubber meets the road. I've sat at the negotiating tables. I've led forces and countries in conflict, so I know how to do it. And I'm a businessman. I've taught economics. I've been on the civilian side of government. I know how government works. I have the skills, the energy, the insight, the dedication, that can change this government.

And there's one more thing I can say about myself unlike all the rest of the people in this race. I did grow up poor. My father died when I was not quite four. We had $424. My mother moved us to Arkansas. We moved in with her parents in a rented house. She was a secretary in a bank. And I was brought up to know the difference between what I want and what I need. I didn't go to Yale. My parents couldn't have afforded to send me there. I went to West Point. I paid my own way through college. I worked my way through. I worked for this country. And I'm running for this race--in this race--because I want to help Americans like me.

I want each one of you here to go out and get your friends and neighbors and this is the final push, we need their support across this state and through this community. This is a time for change in America. The old ideas are gone. It's time that ordinary people took charge in this government and made it work for ordinary people. And I'm the ordinary person in this race. And I've got the skills and the dedication and heart to lead this country.

Alert readers will have noticed that this, Gen. Ordinary Person's closing-sale stump speech, includes not a single word--not one--about what he'd actually do were he elected president.

FIVE OR SIX days ago in this space, analyzing the primary race's altered post-Iowa landscape and venturing into unaccustomed instapundit prediction territory, I suggested that Howard Dean might finish as low as fourth place in today's New Hampshire voting. There were a number of things wrong with that forecast, I've since come to think. And it seems to me that most of my error involved Clark.

One: I recognized, but seriously underestimated, the extent to which John Kerry's emergence as a more-than-viable alternative to Dean would undermine the basic rationale for Clark's candidacy and thus limit Clark's appeal to late-deciding, go-with-the-winner voters. Two: I failed to anticipate--as I surely could've, having watched him enough already--that Clark would perform so dismally in the final debate last Thursday night. Three: Clark's debate performance is no excuse, really; his whole campaign--its vacuousness, his unpreparedness--has been one, long, standing insult to the voters. I, myself, should have given them greater credit for the intelligence necessary to figure that out.

Revised prediction: Clark finishes fourth. Or maybe a weak third. No better.

HOWARD DEAN, who will not finish fourth, of course, held a midday "town hall" meeting in downtown Manchester's Palace Theatre yesterday. There was a heroic documentary about Dean being projected on a giant screen over the stage as the crowd filed in: throbbing, symphonic music and quick-cut still photos of America's founding documents interspersed with video clips of the governor delivering stirring speech lines--the kind of thing they make people watch at National Park Service visitors centers. A lot of people got to watch this film; the place was packed. And a lot of people, it seems to me, watched it with awed expressions on their faces, mouths slightly ajar--because the place was packed with long-time Dean faithful, and not a single undecided voter I could find. A fair number of them appeared to have been bused in by the governor's union backers: the Service Employees and AFSME, who had T-shirted members sitting in two rows of chairs arranged behind Dean's lectern on the stage. And most of the rest of the audience was young people, who clapped and cheered the whole time through, no matter what.

For example. A few minutes into Dean's opening presentation, he'd just begun an anecdote about healthcare policy--"Last night I was up in a meeting up in Plymouth and a guy got up and he said, 'Governor . . .'"--when the very same guy got up again, some place in the Palace Theatre's balcony, and interrupted him: "That's me! That's me!" This was "John," who proceeded to bellow out his story for all to hear:

When I moved to Vermont I was unemployed. I got a job as a dishwasher. And when you walk home in New England you freeze. I needed to see a doctor. So I went to the State of Vermont. Under Gov. Dean I got to see a doctor for $2 a visit. I got to see a dentist for $3, and I still got a lollipop! Some people heard Howard Dean scream and it made them run away. I heard Howard Dean scream and it made me wake up!

John's "lollipop" reference occasioned appreciative laughter and applause throughout the auditorium. John's reference to Gov. Dean's manic episode on Iowa caucus-night, however, what the rest of the universe considers a mistake, produced a genuine bedlam of enthusiasm.

These were people for whom Howard Dean cannot make a mistake. "I think a strong defense is imposs--is--is important," Dean said at one point; nobody seemed to notice. A few minutes later, two doctors wearing white coats, a married couple who'd brought their two young children along, walked out on stage to present the governor a token of their esteem--a stethoscope--and wish him well. "That was a total surprise," Dean remarked--unconvincingly--once his admirers had slipped back behind the curtain. And then he made a slip of the tongue that explicitly exploded the fiction: "This campaign is nothing if not scripted." So what, though? The whole place laughed, and Dean laughed, too.

Something went wrong toward the end of the event. There was an extended disruption by a group of LaRouche people hollering something about Dick Cheney. It was very ugly, as is the LaRouche movement's style. And poor Judy Dean, the governor's wife, seated up on stage with the SEIU and AFSCME people, had to watch the whole thing: hands clasped tightly in her lap, eyes opened wide. I felt bad for her; she'd probably never seen anything like it. I'd seen it a hundred times, and I still found it spooky and unsettling.

But even this couldn't deter the Deaniacs or puncture their mood. "Dean! Dean! Dean!" they chanted, each time some LaRouche lunatic's Dick Cheney lecture needed drowning out. "We want Dean!"

I always figured these folks would stick with Dean to the bitter end. I always figured they'd total up to about 20, 25 percent of the New Hampshire primary electorate, too. I just did the addition wrong, idiot that I am. If Dean finishes today with 20-25 percent of the vote, it's almost mathematically impossible for him to finish fourth. Duh.

Revised prediction: Dean finishes second, calls it a "comeback," and heads south still unable ultimately to win the nomination, I think. But still in the race in the meantime, just the same.

JOHN EDWARDS is the wildcard for anybody trying to guess how things will look tomorrow morning. He has spent the week since his second-place triumph in Iowa treating New Hampshire audiences to stump speeches filled with increasingly lurid, Huey Long-level populist demagoguery. His own Palace Theatre appearance in Manchester yesterday evening, for instance, featured attacks on unspecified "people [who] are stealing your democracy" in Washington; "predatory" and "abusive" big banking interests; "war profiteering" defense contractors who've "bought" their way to influence with campaign contributions; and the rich, fancy types who go to all the right schools and always tell "folks like us" that "you can't do this." John Edwards doesn't really believe a word of this; it's a totally cynical, manipulative stratagem--repellent, even. But it always goes over big with the crowds. And my impression's been that Edwards is the one candidate whose events this week--including the one last evening at the Palace--were still drawing significant numbers of undecided voters.

Revised prediction: If these undecided voters make a major, last-minute break for Edwards, he could finish third and thus maintain a sufficient supply of "momentum" juju to head south into the next round of primaries. If he finishes fourth, though, I think he's dead.

JOHN KERRY'S still going to win, I suppose, but you'd never have known that looking at his rally in Salem High School last night--what turned out to be the last major public event any of the candidates held. The damn thing started almost an hour late--close to 8:30 p.m., and Kerry's audience, 400 people maybe, was restless. When it did finally start, that audience was made to listen to not-especially-interesting speeches by both of Kerry's twenty-something daughters. And then the audience was made to listen to an interminable stand-up routine by Kerry's twenty-something stepson. He does political impersonations, see--Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Clinton and so forth. They're not very good.

Kerry himself spoke only briefly, and people started heading for the doors and home almost from the moment he began, so that by the time he was done, it looked like a quarter of the crowd had already disappeared. Which is too bad; the early-departers wound up missing an all-time classic Kerryism: "I think it's time we had a president who asked us to go to the moon right here on Earth by making certain that we are the generation that makes clear that never should young Americans in uniform ever be held hostage to America's dependence on oil in the Middle East." It didn't make sense in context, either.

Revised prediction: As I say, Kerry finishes first and heads south the clear frontrunner. But he won't stay the frontrunner if he starts to coast like he was last night.

David Tell is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.