Saddam Hussein may be out of his spider hole, but Washington’s real enemy is still at large. His name: “Howard Dean”–and nobody in America poses a bigger threat to the city’s sense of its own importance. New Republic writer Michelle Cottle returned from maternity leave to find Washington fit for a “Tarantino-style blood bath,” with the Democratic front-runner cast as a “paleoliberal…a heartless conservative…too naïve to beat Bush…too politically cynical to trust…a Stalinist…[and] a neofascist [who] kills babies and drinks their blood.”
In its self-appointed role as semiofficial punditocracy politburo, the Washington Post editorial board issued what ABC News’s The Note properly termed “a button-popping, eye-bugging anti-Dean editorial” that it undoubtedly hoped would serve as Dean’s political death sentence. Expressing editorial shock and awe over Dean’s unarguably accurate observation that Saddam Hussein’s capture left the United States no safer than before, Post editors termed the candidate’s views to be “not just unfounded but ludicrous” and complained of his “departure from the Democratic mainstream.”
The Note observed that “history might record that this piece stops The Doctor from being his party’s nominee,” but the hysteria embedded in its analysis could be found nearly everywhere in the media. Over at the New York Times, David Brooks, who appears to have taken over Russell Baker’s comic spot on the op-ed page, contrasted Dean with the Bush Administration. He noted, apparently sincerely, that the latter was suffering “an insincerity crisis” owing to its “honesty and candor,” along with its “candor and forthrightness.” Meanwhile he smirks at Dean as being “the only guy who goes to the Beverly Hills area for a gravitas implant.” Dean’s crime: offering up a moderate, Clintonesque foreign-policy speech to the Pacific Council of World Affairs.
While the Post editors and Brooks speak for hard-line neocons, Dean receives no less abuse at the hands of many genuine liberals. My colleague at the Center for American Progress, Matthew Miller, attended the speech and found it lacking, not in substance, which he thought properly Clintonian, but in presentation. “When Dean barked it out, it felt smaller and shabbier, as if he were lecturing us on simple facts we ought to have known.” Miller worries at length about what it means that Dean accidentally thanked US soldiers for their “services” rather than “service.” Jonathan Chait, so obsessed he now operates an anti-Dean blog at The New Republic, also admits that the position that so exercised the Post pooh-bahs is “narrowly true.” Chait’s problem with Dean, and I quote, is that the Vermont governor “gives off the vibe that he likes to equivocate about the bad guys rather than recognize them for what they are” (what a bummer that Dean dude is…).
ABC’s Sam Donaldson made the same silly point, admitting that “in context, you know what he’s saying,” but when normally perspicacious pundits like Miller and Chait talk in terms of “feelings” and “vibes,” something more than policy disputes are at work. Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post‘s walking conflict of interest and barometer of conventional wisdom– named by the American Conservative Union as one of the most reliable reporters–offers up a clue to the journalistic zeitgeist when he complains of Dean, “Reporters who have spent hours with Dean express surprise that he never asks a single question about them.” (Would Kurtz feel better if Dean said, “So, Howie, does CNN pay you more to report on the Post or does the Post pay you more to report on CNN?”)
Another part of the problem is that punditocracy poster boy Joe Lieberman is currently more likely to get the Republican nomination than the Democratic one–and more deserving as well. Dean is being punished, in part, for cleaning Joe’s clock. Kurtz speaks for fellow Lieberman lovers when he insists, sans evidence, that “Dean and the war’s opponents have not yet come up with a convincing argument that the status quo would have been preferable.” Just whom Kurtz has in mind when he employs the phrase “convincing” is left undefined, of course. It obviously does not apply to most of the planet’s population, since outside the United States, only Israelis supported Bush’s invasion, and that was before anyone was aware of just how dishonest were the Administration’s arguments for war and incompetent its postwar planning. Even following Saddam’s capture, however, 42 percent remain convinced that the war was not worth fighting; 78 percent of Americans questioned professed to share Dean’s view that Saddam’s capture did nothing to reduce the threat of terrorism–a correct judgment, apparently, as evidenced by the current orange alert.
Dean has some problems, no doubt, but the pundits hardly seem to notice that George W. (“You can’t distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror”) Bush cannot pretend to defend deceiving the nation into war anymore. When ABC’s Diane Sawyer pressed him in an interview about whether Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction or merely would have liked to have them, Bush replied contemptuously, “What’s the difference?” (Try this, Mr. President: “I shot that man, Your Honor, because he pointed a gun at me and was about to pull the trigger,” or “I shot that man, Your Honor, because he looked like he was thinking about getting a gun.”)
We’ve all been to this movie before, of course, just one election ago, and it’s therefore no surprise that the anti-Dean media fury has increased exponentially with Al Gore’s brave, antiestablishment endorsement. In the meantime, the question of the Democratic nomination has come down to this: Will this election be about turningout your base, or winning over swing voters? Gore did the latter but not the former. He won the election, but, thanks to Ralph Nader’s megalomania (with an assist from the SCLM–So-Called Liberal Media–and Gore’s own crappy campaign), not by enough to prevent the Supreme Court from handing it to Bush. Today, the nation remains no less divided than four years ago, with about 20 percent of the vote up for grabs. The punditocracy has chosen its side. Perhaps it’s time the rest of us choose ours.