By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In the same way that the wide availability of opening-weekend grosses has turned a whole segment of the public into quasi-informed movie handicappers, the thinking classes have begun to sound like Sunday-morning Washington news-show hosts, full of confident, contorted prognostications about what demographics and attributes a Democrat will need to get the nomination — despite the simultaneous conviction that the nomination will be next to worthless. I mean, Kerry has the name and the money — never mind the hilarious prospect of Kerry, in full plums-in-the-mouth lockjaw mode, attempting to fire up a group of Southern factory workers. Lieberman’s got a lock on the Jewish vote, and he’s hawkish, we gotta have someone who can seem strong on defense — never mind the improbability of Lieberman arousing passion and commitment among younger voters. Dick Gephardt has the unions — though, admittedly, no eyebrows and little you can repeat back after hearing him speak. John Edwards is so telegenic, and the South is the key base . . . In any case, the near-unanimous consensus is that the nominee will not be Howard Dean.
Still shrouded in the future, of course, are the disenchantments that will start to accumulate — and start to depress Bush’s poll numbers — after the toppling of the Saddam statue: the daily ambushes and deaths of American soldiers; the inability of the U.S. to restore services; the restive dissatisfaction of the Iraqis; the ever-increasing monthly costs of the war and estimated length of our required presence. All at a time while back home unemployment continues to rise, more schools are forced to cut programs (including not just arts but sports, for God’s sake), health clinics nationwide are being closed down, and people in Brooklyn with sons deployed as Marines in Baghdad begin to wonder what the hell we’re really doing there at all.
Still to come, also, are the events that in a few months’ time will end up altering Dean’s status to an astonishing, unforeseeable degree. There are the sizable crowds that start to show up at his appearances across the country, uncoordinated by any campaign staff (which in most states doesn’t exist yet) — demonstrating the usefulness of the campaign’s Internet operation not only as an innovative fund-raising tool, but as a radically effective device for organizing and increasing the pool of supporters and, through links to meet-ups and all sorts of personal blogs, bringing them into contact with one another. There’s the $7.6 million, the highest take of any Democrat in the quarter, that Dean is able to raise by the end of June, some of it arriving over the Internet during the very minutes of a Meet the Press interview in which to the jaded eye he appears to be getting positively mauled by Tim Russert in his most bullying interrogational mode.
There’s the evolution of Dean’s portrayal in the media from the barely mentioned to the suddenly much-remarked-upon, and on through a phase of alarm at his perceived McGovern potential — i.e., “Is he too liberal for the country?” This is followed, for the most part, by more accurate appraisals of his considerably less easily categorized ideology, although there are still various denunciations of his “far left” proclivities that are difficult to square with his consistent record of balanced budgets in Vermont, the one state in the country that doesn’t mandate them; his 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association; and his support of a limited death penalty.
By mid-July, there’s the admission by The Wall Street Journal’s Al Hunt that “The conventional wisdom of only a month ago . . . that Mr. Dean was a Bruce Babbitt, or at best a Gary Hart–type anti-establishment candidate and certainly not a prospective nominee is, to put it charitably, outdated.” And finally, there’s the galvanizing news that Dean, in addition to seesawing it out with Gephardt and Kerry in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, sites of the two first key primary contests next year, has come in first in the July 21 California Field Poll. By the first week in August, he has pulled ahead of Kerry in New Hampshire; by the following week, he leads Gephardt in Iowa and appears simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek.
Even on this spring night in Santa Monica, though, it wouldn’t have been hard to discredit the single-issue label. Dean, despite an audience perfectly eager to have him talk about it, doesn’t so much as mention the war until someone asks him a question about it an hour into his presentation. Instead, he talks about a whole range of issues: He starts off with the line he’s been using a lot at this point, “I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party” — this time gracefully attributing it to the late senator Paul Wellstone, who can be accurately said to have coined it — and he spends a fair number of minutes cogently arguing why “agreeing with George Bush 85 percent of the time isn’t going to get you elected — why wouldn’t someone just vote for George Bush?” He cites examples of the failure of this strategy in the midterm House elections, and he quotes Bill Clinton’s view that wrong and strong will always beat weak and right.