In forty years of observing presidential contests, I cannot remember another major candidate brutalized so intensely by the media, with the possible exception of George Wallace. Howard Dean contributed some fatal errors of his own, to be sure, but he also brought fresh air and new ideas, a crisp call to revitalize the Democratic Party and at least the outlines of deeper political and economic reforms. The reporters, as surrogate agents for Washington’s insider sensibilities, blew him off. Dean’s big mistake was in not recognizing, up front, that the media are very much part of the existing order and were bound to be hostile to his provocative kind of politics. To be heard, clearly and accurately, he would have had to find another channel.
For the record, reporters and editors deny that this occurred. Privately, they chortle over their accomplishment. At the Washington airport I ran into a bunch of them, including some old friends from long-ago campaigns, on their way to the next contest after Iowa. So, I remarked, you guys saved the Republic from the doctor. Yes, they assented with giggly pleasure, Dean was finished–though one newsmagazine correspondent confided the coverage would become more balanced once they went after Senator Kerry. Only Paul Begala of CNN demurred. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Begala said, blank-faced. Nobody here but us gunslingers.
The party establishment, limp as it is, was correct to target Dean with tribal vengeance. From their narrow perspective, he represented a political Antichrist. The unvarnished way he talked. The glint of unfamiliar, breakthrough ideas in his speeches. His lack of customary deference to party elders (and to the media’s own cockeyed definition of reality). What the insiders loathed are the same qualities many of us found exhilarating. I already feel nostalgia for his distinctive one-liners:
“Too many of our leaders have made a devil’s bargain with corporate and wealthy interests, saying ‘I’ll keep you in power if you keep me in power.'”
“As long as half the world’s population subsists on less than two dollars a day, the US will not be secure…. A world populated by ‘hostile have-nots’ is not one in which US leadership can be sustained without coercion.”
“Over the last thirty years, we have allowed multinational corporations and other special interests to use our nation’s government to undermine our nation’s promise.”
“There is something about human beings that corporations can’t deal with and that’s our soul, our spirituality, who we are. We need to find a way in this country to understand–and to help each other understand–that there is a tremendous price to be paid for the supposed efficiency of big corporations. The price is losing the sense of who we are as human beings.”
“In our nation, the people are sovereign, not the government. It is the people, not the media or the financial system or mega-corporations or the two political parties, who have the power to create change.”
Do you not remember those remarks? Dean’s best lines–evocative suggestions rather than explicit policy pronouncements–were not widely reported. In his brisk, scattered manner, he was talking about power, inviting people to contemplate the deteriorated condition of our democracy, expressing his solidarity with their skepticism and alienation. Audiences responded, but this sort of talk was too soft and allusive to constitute “news.” Dean’s style was indeed “hot”–“angry,” the reporters said–but they simply couldn’t deal with his reflective side; it didn’t fit the caricature.
Nor did they take much interest in concrete ideas, unless a rival accused him of heresy. Dean called for a labeling law for mutual funds–full disclosure on the fees they charge investors. He wanted a Fannie Mae for small business. And a national commission on how to restore democracy–no politicians allowed. He wanted to confront the concentration of oversized corporations and break up media conglomerates. In addition to full financial disclosure by corporations, Dean called for full social accounting: “Why shouldn’t companies be accountable to investors and the public on other important matters like environmental standards and labor relations? Knowledge is power.”
On political reform, he endorsed radical concepts like instant-runoff voting, which would enable third parties with ideas from either left or right to compete against Republicans and–good grief!–Democrats too. He called for a $100 tax credit for citizens who contribute to presidential campaigns–but available only to citizens on the bottom half of the income ladder. He wanted free airtime for “civic broadcasting” in election seasons–paid for by a spectrum fee charged to the broadcasters using our airwaves. These ideas and others perhaps sounded too fanciful, since neither party in Congress would have much enthusiasm for them. The dead hand of the past always feels threatened by a new guy with a different idea of what’s possible.
OK, the doctor stuck his chin out, and he got his head knocked off. “Politics is a dirty business,” as Hunter Thompson used to say. The Dean campaign–and the candidate himself–failed to define the man and his agenda on his own terms before the media and his rivals defined him, on theirs, as a one-note ranter. (The campaign did try, I know. Back in the fall, when I was invited to contribute ideas, Joe Trippi and others emphasized the need to go way beyond the Iraq war and lay out a far-sighted reform agenda. A few speeches were drafted, but by the time they were delivered the onslaught of attacks by the rivals and daily “gotchas” by the press was already under way, blocking them out.) I am reminded, by contrast, of the great communicator, Ronald Reagan, who early in the 1980 campaign began broadcasting content-rich commercials–the Gipper talking straight into the camera, articulating his views on government, enterprise, the welfare state and other big subjects–educating the public one-on-one, without filters. My hunch, only a hunch, is that Dean and his staff were beguiled by their own press clippings and poll ratings into thinking they would have plenty of time later (after they swept Iowa and New Hampshire) to flesh out their portrait of the man, and what he believes about the country’s potential. Never happened.
Even had they done so, Dean might still have lost. The freshness of his style appealed to some but frightened others. His governing ideas were far more unconventional–outside Washington, some would say normal–than the caricature allowed. Still, no one should excuse the editors and reporters: Despite the multitude of media outlets, they collectively block out the content that seems disturbingly new, anything that doesn’t conform to insider biases about what’s possible.
Despite the spectacle of his cratered campaign, Howard Dean did accomplish something real for democracy. First, he confirmed the existence of an energetic, informed dissent within the husk of the Democratic Party. An amorphous force, to be sure, but I do not think it will go away. Don’t hold me to the numbers, but one campaign veteran told me 70 percent of the citizens on Dean’s much-admired computer list are over 30–a broader base than the stereotype. On the other hand, 25 percent of the money contributed came from people under 30–impressive too. The Dean campaign demonstrated, most dramatically, that people can make their own politics via the Internet and elsewhere by raising lots of money from outsiders, i.e., mere citizens.
This momentous knowledge is liberating–if people figure out how to use it in other places. I can imagine, for instance, insurgent challenges launched by young unknowns against Congressional incumbents, especially in Democratic primaries. Most of these incumbents haven’t faced serious opposition in years. At a minimum, it would scare the crap out of them–always healthy for politicians. In my Washington experience, nothing alters voting behavior in Congress like seeing a few of their colleagues taken down by surprise–defeated by an outsider whose ideas they did not take seriously.
What the Dean campaign clearly did not accomplish (in addition to formulating a smart countermedia strategy) was to find ways to develop the flesh-and-blood relationships that can become enduring building blocks in politics–de Tocqueville’s “associations” or labor’s “collective action.” The Meet-Ups are a rough start. MoveOn.org is an impressive organizing engine. We may be witnessing the early stages of small-d democratic renewal, in which people impose new technologies and new social realities on tired old institutions. As Howard Dean’s rough ride reminds, established power, including the media, will resist change tenaciously. But the doctor may yet be remembered as the herald of something new.