Manchester, New Hampshire

AT JUST BEFORE 3 p.m. on a Friday, the sidewalks are more or less deserted; center-city Manchester has a slightly hard-luck feel these days. But inside the downtown Holiday Inn, the ballroom and corridors are abuzz, packed with teachers' union types, delegates to the annual convention of the National Education Association's New Hampshire affiliate. Next on the agenda, the conclave will host a "Policy Forum on Education" starring Howard Dean. And the hallway buzz among the conclavees--a fair chunk of it, anyway--is about him.

Nearly all the teachers I talk to figure they've already got a pretty good fix on who Dean is: He's the former five-term governor of next-door Vermont, a doctor by training, and now one of the principal Democratic candidates for president in 2004. Several of the teachers I talk to also sketch out a typological survey of that still-nascent campaign from which only Dean's role emerges in sharp relief. Howard Dean, they say, is the heart-of-the-party guy, the spontaneous straightshooter, "like John McCain"--the phrase recurs--except that Dean is an Unembarrassed Liberal.

This last impression arises primarily from Dean's months-long effort to distinguish himself as a uniquely dogged and forthright opponent of President Bush's Iraq policy. And as it happens, right now, this very afternoon, March 21, a new and particularly dramatic manifestation of that policy is being broadcast live on television sets across the globe: The Pentagon's much-anticipated "shock and awe" aerial bombardment of Iraq's government and military installations is finally underway and Baathist Baghdad is all of a sudden a grimly photogenic nighttime inferno. Have the NEA-NH delegates at the Holiday Inn caught word of the latest missile strikes? They've been attending convention business meetings pretty much non-stop since early this morning, but even so, yes, they have. Are they curious to hear what Howard Dean will have to say about this development? Yes, they are. And do they expect him to say something candid and forceful, in the manner of John McCain--though pointedly antiwar, in the manner of . . . well, Howard Dean? Yes, they do.

The man himself arrives minutes later, but before he enters the ballroom to address his formal audience, he sets up at the center of a tiny media contingent--all but one of us based locally--for an obligatory foyer-corner "press availability." The initial conversation is not about the war news, not directly; we journalists are sophisticated insiders, you understand, so the questions concern primary-election ramifications and associated demographic intricacies.

How can a campaign based on a message "like yours" make successful appeal to southerners, someone asks? "We've got to get white males to vote Democratic again, particularly in the South," Dean acknowledges, but "I want to balance the budget and I want health insurance for every American, and that's a message that I think'll play well all over the country." What about specific swing-states outside the Northeast, though, the kind Bill Clinton was able to capture in 1996--does Dean think he has a shot at them? "I do. I'll have a shot certainly at Arizona and Colorado and Wyoming. As you know, my gun policy is a little more conservative than most Democrats'. . . [a]nd I think that'll be attractive in the West. I come from a state that doesn't have any gun control."

John DiStaso of Manchester's Union-Leader, the only other print reporter in the gaggle and the most important political correspondent in the state, attempts to steer things back to the war by mentioning a preference poll released earlier in the day that shows Dean having vaulted into a margin-of-error dead heat with Massachusetts senator John Kerry among New Hampshire Democratic primary voters. According to the numbers, most if not all of Dean's surge is the product of antiwar feeling at his party's grassroots, and yet recent news accounts suggest that the governor may have decided to tone down his criticism of military action, so . . .

So the governor, with a brisk "mm-hmm" to indicate that he already knows perfectly well what the still-unpublished numbers say, interrupts DiStaso mid-sentence to answer the war-related question he'd prefer to be asked: not about his position per se, but about where he's positioned in the field. "Some of the other campaigns that are very nervous about my progress are madly spinning that I'm all over the place," Dean notes with a hint of sarcasm. But "I think it's very clear where I am. What I've said is that I will not stop criticizing the war. I will not personally criticize the president or partisanly attack him while our troops are there. And I will support our troops. But I don't think the war is the right thing to do....[W]hen you preemptively attack another country without it being a threat to you, that leads you into trouble 'cause other countries will copy our example."

Concerning the essential, here-and-now justice of attacking this particular country, Iraq, "without it being a threat," irrespective of what other countries might do in the future, Dean does not volunteer an updated opinion--though a young man from New Hampshire Public Radio immediately offers him an obvious and excellent opportunity to do so. Which offer produces the following bit of odd back-and-forth:

Q: So as far as some of the attacks that happened today, has that affected--

DEAN: As far as what?

Q: As far as what's happened earlier today, has that in any way changed, enhanced, you know, what effect has that had on your general M.O. Nothing? Sort of "steady as she goes?"

DEAN: [Pause.] I, I guess I don't understand the question.

Q: Well, I guess what I'm asking is, in light of what happened today--

DEAN: What, what particular--

Q: You know, the mass bombing, so-called shock and awe. Is that--

DEAN: Well, I, I, I think war is an ugly business . . .

It is an awkward moment. And, it might seem, a suggestive one. Turns out that Howard Dean, a relatively unknown small-state ex-governor who's transformed himself into a legitimate, first-tier candidate for president by fashioning a reputation for singularly committed opposition to the most significant American war since Vietnam--turns out that Howard Dean isn't, in fact, paying especially close attention to the progress of that war, at least not today.

The awkward moment is over in a flash, on the other hand, almost as if it hadn't occurred: Dean recovers, without noticeable discomfort, and delivers a plausibly responsive, gracefully paraphrased reiteration of his daily soundbite: He will continue to oppose the war, but he will refrain from "red meat" partisan swipes at the president so long as our troops are under fire on the ground. Dean is light on his feet. And he's also extremely sharp. Press accounts haven't adequately conveyed the phenomenon, probably because campaign-trail reporters are professionally terrified of appearing love-struck, but the overwhelming first impression one gets of the man is how just-plain smart he is. If there were an IQ primary in the presidential election-cycle calendar, Howard Dean would win it going away.

Here, too, though, Dean in the flesh bears little resemblance to the Dean that's been advertised. His intelligence emerges from the character of his performance: the intimacy with polling data, the running commentary on his own prospects, the rigorously "on message," real-time self-choreography of his conversation generally. It is a highly disciplined and purposeful intelligence, in other words; Dean is a practiced, calculating, and deliberately unspontaneous political technician. John McCain is not the right analogy. A certain other recently prominent--and successful, and Democratic--presidential candidate comes more to mind.

It is a fine and useful thing for a politician to be thought like John McCain, however, and that's how Dean presents himself to the New Hampshire NEA. "I have a reputation for being fairly blunt and outspoken," he reminds them. And he is careful not to disturb the illusion.

Having ploughed the news-clip archives, research staffers at the competing Democratic campaigns know something that the rest of the world has missed: In its details, insofar as he has been coaxed to reveal them, Howard Dean's prescription for an alternative U.S. policy toward Iraq is actually rather vague. He disapproves of the use-of-force authorization given the president by the House and Senate. He disapproves of the precedent established by a "preemptive" and "unilateral" American military incursion overseas. At the same time, ignoring the contradiction, he allows as how any responsible president must retain the prerogative to launch precisely such an attack against the threat posed by a rogue regime with an active weapons-of-mass-destruction program, like North Korea. It's just that President Bush's public pronouncements have failed to establish the existence of a comparable, current threat in Iraq--though Dean is not prepared to deny the possibility, and says he won't be terribly surprised if, by war's end, stockpiles of biological and chemical munitions are located to prove that the threat, indeed, was real.

Howard Dean's foreign policy fine print is dense with nuance, to put it charitably. But his fine print is not what's on display in the ballroom of Manchester's downtown Holiday Inn. On Iraq, "my position is well known," Dean tells his audience: "I'm agin it." Simple as that.

New Hampshire's teachers laugh at this. They're in a grumpy, embattled, militant mood just now--the state's new Republican governor has promised to sign legislation abolishing their union's cherished right to binding arbitration--so they laugh and clap for virtually every partisan barb Dean sends in our Republican president's direction. And he sends barbs aplenty, cheating on that no-red-meat pledge at his very first meal. "I don't think we're gonna get elected by trying to be 'Bush lite,'" he warns, reeling off a few examples of gutless apostasy by congressional Democrats, and scorning each with relish, as if to imply that the very idea of productive bipartisan compromise with this White House is a fantasy. The omnibus education bill lately enacted in Washington (Ted Kennedy, chief sponsor): It's "a disaster, period." The president's marginal tax-rate cuts: Dean vows to "repeal" them outright.

And following that repeal, the "Democratic wing of the Democratic party" reascendant, and the choking dust of Bushism swept clean from the nation's streets, life will be good again. Enough money will be freed up, just in the first twelve months of a Dean administration, to "balance the budget," extend an ironclad health-insurance guarantee to "every single American," and "fully fund special education"--a pet project of the nation's education lobby that boasts magical properties all its own, apparently. Were the federal government to pay for $27 billion worth of special-ed mandates it annually imposes on state school systems, Dean points out, local officials might well decide to reallocate an equal sum from their own current budgets for spending on smaller class sizes, and/or property tax-relief for homeowners, and/or--drum roll, please--pay raises for teachers.

This is the speech his audience hears, at any rate: a classic, high-style, naked pander. Before he's finished the final sentence, the New Hampshire NEA is already giving Howard Dean a standing, throaty ovation.

But more goes on here than has fully registered through their eardrums. Dean's antiwar pitch is sui generis, a short-term political gamble that commits him to nothing. Should the gamble pan out, if and when he is elected president, it really won't matter much, practically speaking, whether Dean was "right" or "wrong"--or vague to the point of incoherence--about the decision whether to depose Saddam Hussein by force. Because it won't be a decision he any longer has to confront: Come what may, Saddam will be history. Domestic policy, on the other hand, is forever; a winning presidential candidate's domestic policy campaign platform has immediate, unavoidable consequences. And Howard Dean, who clearly means to win, is managing his own such platform accordingly. He makes the grand set of aspirational promises that Manchester's teachers' union goes a-tingle over. But he makes reasonably full disclosure while he's at it, carefully amending his remarks with cautionary, walk-back caveats about what will happen to the promises when the aspirations and hard reality can't be squared.

He isn't fooling about fiscal asperity, Dean tells the NEA-NH: "I'm a deficit hawk, I'm an absolute balanced-budget fiend." And even when the budget's balanced, he doesn't sanction federal spending increases that exceed overall GDP growth. He will "try" to deliver their $27 billion special-ed bonus, but that is all. Moreover, he will not try to ensure that bounties like these, assuming they materialize, actually make their way into American teachers' checking accounts. If state legislatures and county councils wind up diverting fresh dollops of indirect federal education aid to altogether unrelated purposes--road construction, say--that won't be Howard Dean's problem, sorry. He issues the warning as sweetly as he possibly can: It's best for teachers if Washington doesn't presume to micromanage local school budgets, Dean explains. But his bottom line is unmistakable: "If I say as a federal person, as the president, that we're going to do something about this and we start pumping large sums of money into education"...well, that becomes a "very difficult issue" and the idea makes him "very nervous."

For some reason, several hundred grumpy, embattled, militant New Hampshire teachers' union representatives either do not notice, or choose to ignore the fact, that Howard Dean has told them "no." They want to swoon for him, and they do. Plenty of American politicians have nuts-and-bolts tradecraft skills as good as or better than Dean's, and he's hardly the only one with a brain. But the ability to pull off a trick like this is the rarest of gifts.

DEAN REMAINS POPULAR back home for the most part. But there are more than a few people in Vermont, not all of them Republican or "conservative," who nevertheless take a jaundiced view of their ex-governor--and are mighty exasperated by his latest campaign. The crusading-populist, "John McCain" business, in particular, drives them straight up the wall. Dean is a poll-watching, careerist main-chancer, they'll tell you, a man whose ideological loyalties are built on sand. He will buckle to the right, as when he early-on embraced work requirements for welfare. He will buckle to the left, as when he signed Vermont's pioneering gay-rights "domestic partnership" law. And he will inevitably revise--and re-revise--his rationale, after the fact, depending on whom he's attempting to woo: Sometimes he says the domestic partnership legislation was a proud matter of principle, and sometimes he says the bill was forced on Vermont by an unusually activist state supreme court.

Either way, his irritated critics back in Burlington advise, Dean will mislead by omission about the glories of his gubernatorial reign. His stump speeches unfailingly claim credit for health care reforms under which nearly every Vermonter now enjoys insurance coverage. But the same was true before he became governor, and the state's Medicaid budget has since more than tripled, details Dean leaves out. Similarly, Dean gets astonished oohs and ahs these days when he describes a Vermont social-service program he instituted that's managed to "cut child abuse by 43 percent and child sexual abuse by 70 percent." Trouble is, these are raw incident-report statistics he's using, involving a population of Vermont preschoolers that has declined by nearly 20 percent in the same period. Expressed more accurately and intelligibly in terms of child abuse rates, Vermont's improvements during the Dean-era 1990s, while real and welcome, actually lagged those recorded for the nation as a whole.

"This is an arrogant, slippery, charmless guy--he can't be elected president," one soured longtime Dean-watcher confidently--or hopefully--insists. "You watch. People will get to know him better, and they just won't like him." Want a tip, this person asks? "Think Mike Dukakis."

An hour or so after the teachers' union event concludes, I find myself in an upper-middle-class Manchester suburb, Bedford, at a "house party" organized in Dean's honor by Mimi Silverman, chair of the local Democratic organization. And I am thinking Mike Dukakis, just in case. A hundred Bedfordites are cramming themselves into Dave and Missie Schroeder's kitchen and den; it's their house, they're the hosts, and almost all the guests are neighbors. But standing next to me, whaddya know, are two brothers, Fred and Tom Jackson, who've driven all the way from Connecticut to see Dean up close and shake his hand. Iraq is a big deal with the Jackson brothers: "I couldn't support my own senator any more," Tom says, meaning Joe Lieberman, "and even Gephardt has gone too far." Fred agrees. Both Jacksons say they're inclined to join the Dean campaign on an active basis. And have they worked in presidential politics before? "Yep," Tom reports as I open my notebook. "In 1988 we ran Connecticut for Mike Dukakis." I take out my pen. "Maybe you shouldn't write that down," Tom adds. He's only kidding, though other tiny hints of Dukakisism soon pop up, and they're not all of them quite so funny.

There is Republican Red America, and there is Democratic Blue America, and there is this evening's crowd at Dave and Missie Schroeder's house, which is probably as blue as you can get without being sucked into a colorless void. After Dean, parked between the sink and stove, delivers an abbreviated--and notably "progressive"--version of his standard spiel, he opens it up to questions and comments. Whereupon one respectable-looking, articulate, and deadly earnest lady announces that she's "terrified" over a rumor that "at the next election, George Bush is going to drag out the war and declare a national emergency and suspend the election." Dean makes no effort to reassure her. "I've actually heard that," he says, with a facetious, speculative aside about whether "that's in the Patriot Act or not." Another guest wonders if Dean can identify the one question he'd most like to ask George Bush in a televised general-election debate--if, that is, the president could be shamed into debating him in the first place. "Who's your favorite philosopher?" comes the governor's reply. The Schroeder house fills with knowing, derisive laughter.

Many millions of Americans, witnessing such a spectacle, would doubtless agree with the soured longtime Dean-watcher: They would find it charmless and they would think Dean arrogant. Doubtless, too, when many millions of Americans, for reasons like these, decide they just don't like somebody, that somebody isn't usually going to get himself elected president. Mike Dukakis didn't.

But Mike Dukakis did win his own party's nomination, which is Howard Dean's only goal for the moment. On paper, by the logic of conventional wisdom, Dean should barely rate an asterisk in the race. The 2004 Democratic primary schedule has been radically compressed, a change thought to place unprecedented premiums on money, staff experience, and interest-group support. Dean hasn't got the money; he raised $2.6 million in the first quarter of this year, almost as much as Lieberman and Gephardt, but less than half the sums posted by Kerry and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Dean's campaign staff is thin, and he's just within the past two weeks found it necessary to rearrange its senior ranks. No major Democratic voter bloc owes Howard Dean a thing. And yet still he is challenging for the lead. Democrats, at least, do not dislike him. Quite the contrary. Mimi Silverman of the Bedford Democrats is quick to stipulate that she intends eventually to arrange house parties for all the candidates. But Dean was first on her list, and she admits that it "wasn't entirely happenstance." There's a "great deal of enthusiasm for him in the ranks."

Maybe the enthusiasm exists, as the behavior of New Hampshire's teachers' union delegates suggests, because Howard Dean, like the American politician he genuinely most resembles--not John McCain, but Bill Clinton--has a knack for making people forget themselves and swoon. And maybe, if that's the case, and if conventional wisdom fails and he should win the nomination, then arrogance and charmlessness will not be what the general-election voting public sees at all. Again like Clinton, but unlike Mike Dukakis, Dean wears more than one mask, and switches back and forth among them with ease. "Times change," Democrats have got to quit moving "further and further to the right," the triangulation that worked for Clinton "is not going to be successful any more," Dean tells the Schroeder house party--simultaneously doing a bit of his own triangulation, only tacking to the left. Besides, "Bill Clinton had more talent in his little finger than any of us will see in an entire generation in terms of his political skills."

But I don't think Howard Dean really believes that, either.

David Tell is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.

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