Blood in the Water | The Nation


Blood in the Water

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After a summer of tending to the grassroots, the Democrats who aspire to their party's 2004 presidential nomination were busy harvesting support from key constituencies around Labor Day. Former House minority leader Dick Gephardt unveiled his twelfth endorsement from a major labor union, the 300,000-member Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers. Senator John Kerry, who has waged a bilingual campaign to win over the burgeoning Latino voting bloc, secured the backing of former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros and former Los Angeles mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa. Former Senator Carol Moseley Braun pumped needed energy into her campaign by winning support from the National Organization for Women and the National Women's Political Caucus. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich appeared with country singer Willie Nelson in the first-caucus state of Iowa, where the Farm Aid stalwart declared Kucinich the friend of the farmer.

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

But for all the political preening by the other contenders, only former Vermont Governor Howard Dean seemed to be gaining traction with the party's base. Indeed, Dean's tech-savvy campaign of mouse pads, meet-ups and moms-on-a-mission was flying so high that no one was paying much attention to the other candidates. Dean, who flavors his criticisms of the Bush Administration's war in Iraq with the extra salsa of righteous indignation, has struck a chord with Democrats. And with polls tracking the decline of Bush's once daunting approval ratings, the Vermonter is surfing the rising tide of opposition to a President who has failed to deliver peace in Iraq or prosperity at home. "We're gonna win," Dean told the cheering throngs at rallies on a furious coast-to-coast tour in late August. "We're gonna beat George Bush."

While the other candidates continue to position themselves as the progressive populist (Kucinich), the mainstream liberal (Kerry), labor's champion (Gephardt), the women's rights contender (Moseley Braun), the civil rights contender (the Rev. Al Sharpton), the vaguely Clintonesque Southerner (North Carolina Senator John Edwards) the serious senior senator (Florida's Bob Graham) or the Democrat even a Republican could love (Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman), Dean is satisfied to run as the guy who really, really wants to put it to Bush. And grassroots Democrats--even those who know Dean's many flaws--are eating it up. "I like what Kucinich says. But this time, it's got to be pragmatism, pragmatism, pragmatism," says seriously progressive lawyer Amy Scarr, a Wisconsin Dean backer. "I just think Dean can win."

Drawing crowds of 5,000 in Portland, 10,000 in Seattle and at least that many in New York City, Dean's August rallies often had the feel of revival meetings. Dean volunteers describe themselves as political born-agains, delivered from disengagement by a self-help campaign in which supporters chant "We are Howard Dean!" "A year ago, I felt hopeless and helpless and discouraged as George Bush rolled his agenda through Congress," declared Melita Schuessler, a self-described "former political wallflower" who introduced the candidate in Milwaukee. "Now, because of the Dean campaign, I am full of hope."

To a greater extent than any other candidate, Dean has recognized that what Democrats want in 2004 is a Bush-bashing populist. And even if that is not who the buttoned-down former governor happens to be, he is having fun playing the part. "We're going to outwork George Bush, and this time, the person who gets the most votes is going to the White House," Dean yells, as his audiences chant "No more Floridas!" Like a white rapper from the suburbs sampling the sounds of the ghetto, the moderate Dean has grabbed the language of the left and turned it into applause lines. When he mentions Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, he pauses, as shouts from the crowd identify the trio as "Liars!" At a Saturday-night rally in Milwaukee, a kid in a Che Guevara T-shirt stands to the side of the crowd waving a Dean for America sign. In San Francisco, progressive mayoral candidate Tom Ammiano endorses Dean as the "courageous" candidate. In Iowa, liberal stalwart David Loebsack says, "On issues, of course, Kucinich is closest to me," but he is backing Dean because, as he puts it, Dean delivers the "red meat" better than any other candidate.

Loebsack, a political science professor who has met most of the candidates, is not naïve. "I am fully aware of Dean's past positions on many issues and the fact that in the mid-1990s he was in many ways the darling of the DLC," he explains, referring to the corporate-friendly Democratic Leadership Council, which now criticizes Dean as the George McGovern of 2004. "However, I believe he has moved significantly in a progressive direction in recent years, and especially since he began his run for the presidency."

Loebsack isn't alone in that assessment. Bob Muehlenkamp, the former organizing director for the Teamsters who helped pull together the US Labor Against the War movement, is now helping Dean round up labor support. Muehlenkamp had heard all the complaints about Dean's record. "Frankly, I was skeptical when the Dean people approached me. I had to be convinced," says Muehlenkamp. "But my experience of working with the guy has been a good one. I think his instincts are progressive, and I think he has been genuinely moved by the experience of this campaign. He recognized the anger at Bush--and at the Democratic Party's failure to challenge Bush--early on. He spoke to that, and the response was phenomenal. He's trusting his instincts. I think he's very genuine in what he is saying."

Will Dean continue to trust those instincts or tack to the center? "I can't say for sure," Loebsack acknowledges.

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