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.”