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
As a senator who voted for the Iraq war resolution and is mostly a free-trader, Edwards has drawn skeptical rebuffs from the left. But he has nevertheless developed a compelling show-no-mercy, class-based populism. He cranks up his crowds with a fiery denunciation of the “two Americas” — the central theme of Arianna Huffington’s book How To Overthrow the Government.
“There really are two Americas,” Edwards told a cheering throng assembled in the downtown Des Moines Savery Hotel. “One of wealth and privilege who can afford anything they want anytime they want. And another America for everybody else who is just struggling to make ends meet.”
Lashing out against insurance companies, oil monopolies, HMOs and corporate greed, promising to “cut the lobbyists off at the knees,” and calling a halt to “the war profiteering going on in Iraq,” Edwards offers himself up as the steadfast defender of the little guy. His personal narrative is equally compelling — and he knows it. Born to common stock, Edwards worked his way through school, sometimes unloading trucks, and became one of North Carolina’s most feared anti-corporate personal-injury litigators. He touts his record as a corporate dragon-slayer, boasting, “I beat ’em, I beat ’em, and I beat ’em again!”
He rather courageously dedicates long stretches of his stump speech to decrying the plight of 35 million Americans living in poverty and to lecturing on the evils of racism. Take his stump speech and put it in the mouth of progressive favorite Dennis Kucinich, and probably 95 percent of the latter’s supporters couldn’t tell the difference.
Edwards’ snowballing support was consistently underestimated. Even when his surge was unmistakable, he was still being written off. Just hours before the caucuses convened, several pundits had tagged Edwards as the “515 candidate” — that is, having his only stronghold in the 515 area code, Des Moines. But Edwards had been assiduously cultivating the remote, rural areas left untended by his competitors, and for his efforts he reaped a bonanza. If this campaign had lasted another week, Edwards might have likely overcome Kerry and taken first place.
Then again, from inside the Dean campaign, the feisty Vermont governor also looked unstoppable, invincible. That’s the problem with all political campaigns: They become self-deluding, self-referential bubbles.
The Dean bubble was humongous. The conventional wisdom in Iowa is that it’s all about “organization, organization, organization,” it’s all about the capacity of a candidate’s field operation to identify sympathizers and then motivate them — maybe even cart them through sub-zero winter cold snaps and blizzards — to go to their local precinct caucus.
Dean had all the money. And the organization you can buy with it. “This is a new generation of campaign,” said an awestruck local Democratic Party official in assessing the Dean operation. “Al Gore couldn’t have dreamed of this four years ago.”
Those 3,500 volunteers, dubbed the Perfect Storm and touted by the Dean campaign, were all real. The volunteer headquarters took up a whole city block. The campaign rented up to 120 vans for them, armed them with 400 cell phones and lodged them in a network of winterized cabins and campgrounds. “We’ve rented up pretty much every vehicle left in Iowa,” laughed Dean staffer Christy Setzer during a midweek interview. “We had to start asking volunteers to bring in rental cars from across the border in Omaha.” The Dean computer databases had a place for everybody and everybody in their place, churning out tens of thousands of phone calls each week. A half-million dollars or more was spent on TV ads in just the last week.
The press operation was well-oiled, perfectly synchronized, highly sophisticated, and painstakingly catered to every need of the hordish press corps, right down to mobile “wi-fi” hot spots at every filing point. The 650-mile, four-day, cross-state bus tour rolled along without as much as a bump.
Sheen and Reiner and Joan Jett and Janeane Garofalo vigorously performed and campaigned alongside Dean, and helped draw impressive crowds. Judging by just the sizes of the campaign audiences, no one would ever think that the doctor was in the trouble he found himself in on Monday night.
And without question there was and is something different about the Dean supporters. They are not just motivated, they are inspired, full of the sense that there is much, much more at stake in all this than in selecting a nominee. Last week, an excited, 24-year-old Diana Silbergeld came to the Perfect Storm office after arriving in town from Philadelphia. An environmental organizer, she was about to be joined by her parents flying in from Santa Monica and a sister coming in from Connecticut — all to volunteer together for Dean. “I’m here because Howard Dean is not our usual politician,” she explained as she filled out the Dean volunteer forms. “He’s not spending his time talking about himself. Instead, he’s bringing in new voters to the party, bringing in people who see what he has done and want to be part of this.”
That sort of optimism coursed through the closing event of the Dean bus tour, held on the eve of the caucuses in the liberal, student stronghold of Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa. If Dean had any knockout weapons, this was supposedly his arsenal. A report from the Secretary of State’s Office a few days before had reported an avalanche of new voter registrations. And Iowa City was at the top of the list with about a 300 percent increase over last year.