Veterans of a failed campaign will gather Sunday in Burlington, Vermont. Ten years ago, Howard Dean offered himself to the nation. He would run for President and take his stand with “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.” His supporters loved him for that. They craved the real thing. After a wonderfully spirited and improvisational campaign, they lost to John Kerry who was not, certainly, the real deal. There will be no gatherings of Kerry supporters. No melancholy reunion to celebrate the man who famously “voted against the bill before I voted for it.”
The Dean campaign was a long shot insurgency built on his opposition to the Iraq war and his support for gay rights. He’d been governor of Vermont when it became the first state in the union to legalize “civil unions,” which would lead, inevitably, to gay marriage.
But it was Dean’s unequivocal opposition to the war and his passion on the issue that fired up his troops, many of them young and digitally sophisticated. So his campaign broke new ground in Internet fundraising and organizing and his following enjoyed the glow that comes with feeling you occupy the moral high ground and, at the same time, are out on the cutting edge of what Rush Limbaugh calls “societal evolution.” They weren’t just right. They were also hip.
The campaign, itself, became a kind of live-off-the-land operation where chaos was the organizing principle. This was neatly captured by Kate O’Connor’s Do the Impossible, which was published in the modern print-on-demand fashion and never gained any literary traction. Perhaps because it is quite long and suffers from a mild case of the imitative fallacy. And, also, because it lacks “narrative.” This, actually, is the book’s greatest virtue. Ms. O’Connor, who was a senior aide to Dean when he was governor of Vermont, and continued in that role when he ran for president, doesn’t try to play in Theodore White’s sandbox. She is content to give the reader an unadorned view of the way life is lived, day to chaotic day, in a modern, big-stakes political campaign.
Do the Impossible, then, is to modern campaign books what Sam Watkins’ Company Aitch is to Civil War literature. It is the faithful journal of a life changing experience; full of sound, fury, and plenty of boredom.
Through much of the Dean campaign – probably any campaign, for that matter – days would pass without the making of a single fateful decision. People would get on hastily chartered airplanes and fly somewhere to do the same thing they had been doing in the place they are now departing. And that thing was mostly … raising money.
The simultaneous quests for money and votes took candidate and staff – including Ms. O’Connor – on a journey of improbable destinations. One night she is sleeping in a bunk bed in the guest room of a supporter in Idaho. Another, finds her quartered in Warren Beatty’s guest house overlooking the Pacific.
Since this is a campaign book, it would not be complete without stories of conflicts among the staff for position and prestige. Of this, there is a sufficiency. But the disputes never rise to the level of principle. Which may account for why they are so ugly.
Ms. O’Conner feuds with Joe Trippi, a Washington political consultant, campaign manager, etc. who comes to Vermont to enlighten the rubes on how it is done. The chemistry is bad and the fights are nasty, though never over “policy.” According to an Atlantic Monthly article, which she quotes, Mr. Trippi referred to Ms. O’Conner as “that bitch.” By the time the campaign was in full, they barely spoke and when they did it was seldom civil.
But, but … beneath the tedium and banality there is a rock of belief. These people were on a crusade. Their faith was strong and neither polls nor press could shake it. And it was not (though Ms. O’Conner might disagree with me here) merely a matter of loyalty to the man. The thing was not based on Dean’s “charisma,” in the corrupted sense of that term.
Dean was their man, of course. But he was also their agent. He was and is a practicing politician. He was not above the usual scheming and he is not immune to the poison of self-regard. Vermont may have been the first state to legalize civil unions, but Dean signed in the bill in hiding, behind closed doors.
It was the cause; not the man. Dean’s followers loved him for his unequivocal stands but they wouldn’t have loved him if he’d taken an equally firm position in favor of the war.
Dean didn’t make it, flaming out, unforgettably, in Iowa. But the cause survived and was appropriated by someone whose skills were more refined. This story has precedent. Goldwater was a loser but his cause and his armies survived and rallied around Reagan. McGovern was a loser but his cause became his party’s identity.
On the other hand, losing campaigns built on polls, focus groups, and timidity leave no footprint.
There is a lesson in the reunion of Dean’s troops this weekend. One Rand Paul seems to have learned.