First, the rivals saw him as a McGovernite lefty from the 1960s. When that didn’t take, they decided to depict him as a right-wing clone of Newt Gingrich who wants to dismantle Medicare and Social Security. Finally, opponents sold political reporters on the story of Mr. Malaprop, an oddball from tiny, liberal Vermont so insensitive to the nuances of American politics his mouth will destroy him. Howard Dean surged ahead through all this. The other candidates and witting collaborators in the press got him wrong every time.
Howard Dean is an odd duck, certainly, in the milieu of the contemporary Democratic Party. He is, I surmise, a tough and savvy politician of the old school–a shrewd, intuitive pol who develops his own sense of where the people are and where events are likely to take public opinion, then has the guts to act on his perceptions. That approach–leading, it’s called–seems dangerously unscientific in this era of high-quality polling and focus groups, the data interpreted for politicians by expensive consultants. The press corps has not had much experience with Democrats of this type, so reporters read Dean’s style as emotional, possibly a character flaw. He reminds me of olden days when Democrats were a more contentious bunch, always fighting noisily among themselves and often with creative results.
The ubiquitous “party sources” have explained that Dean merely caught a lucky break by declaring early and forcefully against the war on Iraq at a time when Americans were overwhelmingly prowar. Who knew things might change? The doctor knew.
A more pertinent question is, Why didn’t other leading candidates see this tragedy coming? Their reticence was symptomatic of the inert Washington insiders, exceedingly cautious, indifferent to whatever roils the party’s rank and file, and always a few steps behind the curve. The explanation that Washington candidates voted for the war on principle or were misled by Bush doesn’t help them. Their blindness to the potential consequences (now unfolding) is another reason to be for Dean. He, meanwhile, speaks plainly to the error of US imperialism. “America is not Rome. We do not dream of empire. We dream of liberty for all.”
The man also stands his ground in a fight. When someone jabs him, he jabs back. Pundits describe this quality as dangerous, and no doubt it gets him into trouble occasionally, but what a refreshing departure from the rope-a-dope calculations of the Clinton era. This trait is what I like about him most. In my experience, it’s more revealing than a politician’s positions on issues. With issues, Dean is pretty much what he says: a middle-of-the-road moderate, neither left nor right, though middle in Vermont is liberal ground. As governor, he was skilled at maneuvering through contending forces, sometimes angering both sides in the process.
I first observed these qualities during Dean’s second-to-last term as governor. Vermonters were inflamed–everyone was coming after him–when he and Democratic legislators enacted the infamous Act 60, a school-financing-equalization law that compelled the “gold towns” to share their property-tax revenues with poorer townships. Faced with general outrage, Dean barked back at the storm. The remark I remember reading in the Rutland Herald went something like this: “I know why people are angry at me. They’ve been getting away with low tax rates and well-financed schools. They’re not going to be able to do that anymore.”
Wow, I thought. This is a different kind of politician–no ducking the blame, no cute obfuscation. The law isn’t perfect, Dean added. We will fix it later if we have to. (They did.) Vermont progressives were upset, too, because Dean had refused to consider raising income taxes to finance the schools. His logic, however, was more liberal than it appeared. Raising income taxes would put all the burden on Vermonters, many of whom are poor. Raising property taxes–with a generous homestead exemption for full-time residents–put the big hit on the out-of-state people who own so many lovely vacation homes there. Dean did not explain this to the “flatlanders,” but we figured it out.
The governor has shown flashes of the same bluntness in his prime-time campaigning. Last summer, he told a revealing story on himself–a conversation with Robert Rubin, the former Treasury Secretary and Wall Street’s main money guy for Democrats. Rubin had warned that unless Dean stopped attacking NAFTA and the multinationals for the migration of US jobs, he couldn’t raise contributions for him from the financial sector. As Dean told it, “I said, ‘Bob, tell me what your solution is.’ He said, ‘I’ll have to get back to you.’ I haven’t heard from him.” What I like so much about the story is that powerful, influential Bob Rubin pokes Dean in the chest, and he pokes him back. Then Dean discloses the exchange to the Washington Post.
In the higher realms of politics, this is not done. But he is not one of them. And this is no longer the era for “triangulation” between the business-financial money patrons and the party’s main constituencies. That new spirit, more than any single issue, is what has drawn together Dean’s vibrant and growing base, buoying his candidacy with millions in small contributions. Dean is opening the possibility of transforming politics–shaking up the tired, timid old order, inviting plain-wrapper citizens back into an active role–and that’s why so many people, myself included, are for him. Full disclosure: I am among the throngs who have been invited to contribute “forward-looking ideas” to his campaign (I was flattered to be asked and pleased to oblige, with no naïve expectations).
Dean, I suspect, learned in the up-close-and-personal politics of Vermont that you don’t win elections by keeping the people at a safe distance. You can’t do it in that state, even if you try. He governed with strong, well-organized progressives and environmentalists on one flank, conservative business interests on the other and a mass of native working-class Vermonters who don’t much care for either. Dean collected a lot of lumps and resentments, many compromises and setbacks, in ten years as governor. Insiders remember him as shifty and unreliable. But he also learned how to stand his ground in a fight.
All that helps explain why the party establishment had a hard time understanding the man and is so upset by the thought that he might be the nominee. Corny as it sounds, he might actually bring voters back into the story. Washington’s smugness was shattered in the past few weeks as Dean picked up pathbreaking endorsements from Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. and SEIU and AFSCME, the two largest unions and heads-up, aggressive organizations. Dean continues to up the ante for his rivals–calling for reregulation of key industries and confronting the concentrated power of corporations and wealth. These are solid liberal ideas others are afraid to express so directly. The guy is a better politician than the insiders imagined, indeed better attuned to this season than they are.
It’s still early and Dean will be field-tested in the next few months, but so will they. If the party establishment succeeds in derailing him or declines to rally around him as the nominee, Democratic status as the minority party may turn out to be a very long Vermont winter.