Howard Dean has won the war but lost another battle. In New Hampshire–where Senator John Kerry racked up his second straight win, with 39 percent, Dean placed a not-so-encouraging second, at 26 percent, and Senator John Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley Clark both received an unimpressive 12 percent–the leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination all ran as Dean-like crusaders, vowing to vanquish Washington special interests. Kerry said he would “stand up” to the special interests. Edwards spoke eloquently of “two Americas”–one where the wealthy receive quality healthcare and education and pocket most of the tax cuts; and another where corporations screw middle- and low-income families who have trouble paying their bills, saving money and obtaining decent education for their kids. Clark argued that as an outsider, not a politician, he would be able to “represent the American people, not pharmaceutical companies.”
In politics, swiping issues is a form of flattery. So Dean should feel complimented, small consolation as that may be. His “take back America” campaign–which he claimed was enlisting citizens in a grassroots effort to challenge the money-and-power ways of Washington–not only inspired hundreds of thousands of people to donate and volunteer but also persuaded Dean’s rivals that anti-special-interests populism was the ticket to the White House, or at least the Democratic nomination. When Kerry seemed in trouble at the end of last year, he started selling himself as “The Real Deal,” ready to confront the powerful interests. Weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Edwards honed his “two Americas” routine, which became the best speech of the race. By election day, few thematic or policy differences existed among the four leading candidates. They could all say, “I am a Howard Dean Democrat.” That was not so, though, for back-of-the-packers Senator Joseph Lieberman and Representative Dennis Kucinich. Lieberman, who could give a speech on healthcare and not mention insurance companies or HMOs, polled 9 percent. And Kucinich, whose radical populism includes a call for a universal, not-for-profit, single-payer healthcare system, netted a measly 2 percent.
Dean has yet to persuade a plurality of voters that he is the appropriate person to carry the message he injected into the 2004 campaign. In New Hampshire, he tried hard to refurbish his image, presenting himself as a blend of two late Democrats, Paul Tsongas and Paul Wellstone. Tsongas, who hailed from Massachusetts, won the New Hampshire primary in 1992 as a self-proclaimed straight shooter who accused Bill Clinton and others of pandering by promising tax cuts when the deficit was a problem. In New Hampshire, Dean maintained that Democrats must not overpromise–meaning they have to acknowledge that tax cuts and additional programs must wait until the budget is balanced (with the exception of his favorites: expanded health coverage, early childhood intervention and a renewable-energy initiative). Dean also continued to expound the people-have-the-power faith and you’ll-always-know-where-I-stand attitude of Wellstone, as he pointed to his own early opposition to the war and characterized his campaign as an organizing vehicle for voters seeking to bring public-interest democracy to Washington. Kerry told voters, “I will fight for you.” Edwards told them, “I believe in you.” Dean said, “I don’t want people to believe in me. I want you to believe in yourselves.” His campaign had more “we” in it than the others. He effectively joked about the “Scream Heard Around the World”–which might remain the deal killer for Dean–and he focused more attention on his record of providing medical insurance to the uninsured of Vermont. If there are second acts in American politics, Dean positioned himself as best he could for a revival.
But New Hampshire left him hanging. As his campaign aides noted (desperately?) on election night, Dean did finish eight or so points higher than his recent lows in the polls. But had he hit a natural ceiling, demonstrating that his hard-edged, boot-the-bums campaign has limited appeal? For his part, Kerry, usually a lackluster campaigner, improved in the last days. He loosened up and engaged more effectively with the crowds. He seemed happy. (“That’s always been tough for him,” one of his aides said.) He articulated a strong case against Bush, questioning whether Bush could claim “mission accomplished” on jobs, healthcare and education, and he slammed the President for overseeing the “most arrogant, inept, reckless and most ideological foreign policy” in years. With his Vietnam buddies ever nearby, the former war hero argued that the Democrats needed a nominee with recognizable national security experience. He was a safe choice, more conventionally electable than Dean.
As soon as Kerry’s victory was sealed, his aides asserted that Dean was done. But the night before the election, Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi laid out the strategy for a never-say-die campaign. Trippi has since been replaced by–get this–former telecom lobbyist and Gore aide Roy Neel. But Trippi’s view was that no one in this field can yet sustain a lead. The voters perceive weaknesses in each. As one or another rises to the top of the pack, Democratic voters respond by slapping them back into place. It happened to Dean. Now, Trippi predicted, it will happen to Kerry. Maybe Edwards will be next. Consequently, the race will continue for several weeks–despite pleas from party HQ for candidates to drop out–until it is a two- or three-person race. By then, none of the campaigns will have the vast amount of money required to advertise effectively in large states like California and New York. At that point the face-off will turn on which campaign can mount the best low-budget endeavor and which candidate can thrive in an environment dominated by debates and media coverage. In this phase, Trippi said, Dean will hammer Kerry for his vote granting Bush the authority to invade Iraq and for being part of a Congress that (unlike Dean) failed to deliver on healthcare coverage. Trippi maintained that Dean’s band of passionate staffers and volunteers would be the campaign most able to revert to “in the weeds” status.
A likely scenario? Does Neel even buy this? Perhaps Kerry will succeed with the strategy once embraced by Deaniacs: Win the first two bouts, survive the inevitable incoming attacks and steamroll the opposition. But there are more Kerry-Dean battles to come, and they could stretch out over several weeks–or longer. And as the race enters a pell-mell period with primaries occurring across the nation, Edwards and Clark will finally have shots in Southern and Western states. After New Hampshire, one anti-special-interests Democrat is in a commanding (but still early) lead, and several other anti-special-interests Democrats have reasons to stay in the hunt. But if Dean is to have a chance of supplanting Kerry as his party’s messenger-in-chief–a large if–his campaign, often described as insurgent, may well have to reach a new and even more intense level of insurgency.