What did Howard Dean do to make the media so snarky about his primary run? Now that he has emerged as a major fundraiser with flocks of enthusiastic supporters, a vigorous campaign staff, a bag full of Internet tricks and respectable–and rising–poll numbers, the pundits and reporters have to go through the motions of taking him seriously: In a single August week he was on the cover of Time and Newsweek and had a major story in U.S. News & World Report. But aside from some curiously cheerful coverage in the Wall Street Journal, they obviously don’t like him. He’s “brusque,” “testy,” the “ex-Governor of a speck of a state” and “a shrill Northeasterner,” Karen Tumulty wrote in Time. “It’s hard to imagine Dean’s glorious season ending without disappointment,” adds John Cloud in his profile in the same issue, in which he draws a labored and precious similarity between Dean and George W. Bush (both come from rich Republican families, both went to Yale, partied hearty, speak Spanish–never mind that Dean went to medical school while George II relied on his father’s cronies to set him up in the oil business). “The Doctor Is In–In Your Face!” warns U.S. News. Over at Newsweek (“Destiny or Disaster?”), Jonathan Alter also finds “the diminutive family doctor” “brusque” and says he “strutted like a little Napoleon onto the floor of the usually genteel Vermont State Senate.”
A little Napoleon? Is that the problem–Dean is short? (He’s 5′ 8″.) In order to run for President one must not only be white, a man, married, religious and Southern–not to mention whatever the opposite of brusque may be–one must be tall as well? No wonder I love this man! Every time the press pooh-poohs his chances, every time they gloat over some trivial misstatement, every time they make fun of Vermont and describe his supporters as “Birkenstocked” “Deanyboppers,” I think about the free ride the media give Bush, who says more false and foolish things in an afternoon than Dean has said in a lifetime, who is unmaking everything good about this country from Head Start to habeas corpus, who is stacking the government with faith healers and fanatics, my fingers itch to write Dean another check.
So what if on Meet the Press Dean gave ballpark answers to Tim Russert’s gotcha questions about the number of soldiers in Iraq? Compared with the President he’s a Talleyrand reborn. On July 14, Bush explained why the United States invaded Iraq as follows: “The larger point is, and the fundamental question is: Did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is: absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. And therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power.” Eat your heart out, Hans Blix! The President of the United States can bizarrely declare that weapons inspectors never entered Iraq, and that’s not a news story. He’s “likable,” he’s tall–he’s not a Democrat.
Dean opposes the war on Iraq, wants to rescind the Bush tax cuts and has a plan for quasi-universal healthcare coverage. But he’s not particularly progressive, despite the Democratic Leadership Council’s accusation that he is on the “far left,” “McGovern-Mondale” wing of the party and will lead it straight to hell. In the 1990s, he was a darling of the DLC, and he governed Vermont as a budget-balancing centrist (“I was a triangulator before Clinton was a triangulator,” he recently told the New York Times Magazine). If you want a great platform on everything from single-payer health insurance (yes) to the death penalty (no), Dennis Kucinich is definitely your man. Indeed, some pundits predict that when Dean’s lefty supporters discover Dean’s center-right positions on such issues as Israel and welfare, his campaign will fizzle. “The guy they think Dean is, Dennis is,” Jeff Cohen, Kucinich’s ebullient communications director, told me, predicting an exodus of progressives from Dean to Kucinich as the truth comes out. (Presumably despite the fact that Kucinich is a whole inch shorter.)
Maybe so. But I’ve talked to quite a few Dean supporters, including mainstream Democrats, lapsed voters, flaming leftists, Naderites, gay activists, civil libertarians, anti-death penalty lawyers, pro-single payer health professionals and even a surprising number of Nation staffers. I have yet to find one who mistakes Dean for Eugene Debs, or even for Paul Wellstone, whose line about belonging to the “democratic wing of the Democratic Party” Dean likes to borrow. They’ve gone for Dean because, alone among the major Democratic contenders, he has taken Bush on in an aggressive and forthright way, because he’s calling the craven Democratic Party to account and because they think he can win. “I have no illusions that Dean is a true progressive,” said one young graduate student who describes himself as a leftist, “but I don’t care. I just want to beat Bush. If Dean has the momentum, I say, go for it.” That word “momentum” comes up a lot.
Right now, Dean is the only viable candidate who speaks to the anger, fear and loathing a large number of ordinary citizens feel about the direction Bush has taken the country, while the mainstream media blandly kowtow and the Democratic Party twiddles its thumbs. He has gone out and actually asked for the help of these citizens, rather than taking them for granted. That is why 70,000 people have sent him money, and why 84,000 have shown up to work for him, and why tens of thousands of volunteers wrote personal letters to Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats and independents urging them to support Dean. His willingness to challenge Bush without looking over his shoulder at the last undecided voter in Ohio is the big story–not whether he signed Vermont’s civil union legislation in a private ceremony to avoid publicity, or even whether he insisted on balancing Vermont’s budget at the expense of worthy social programs.
What the media see as progressive self-delusion is actually the opposite: a bare-knuckled pragmatism born from the debacle of the 2000 elections. If Kucinich can capture the public’s imagination, great. If Kerry acquires more backbone and fire, fine. Right now, though, it looks like Howard Dean is Ralph Nader’s gift to the Democratic Party.