Flight of the Bumblebee

Howard Dean May Be Dying, but He Sure Packed a Sting

MANCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE—In the beginning there was New Hampshire. And New Hampshire will never let you forget it.

At Manchester International Airport, the first thing those who wish to reclaim their luggage are greeted by is a museum-style vitrine. Inside are pictures of Bill Bradley tossing free throws in Concord, George W. Bush waving from a minivan. Lamar Alexander is there, memorialized for his Groundhog Day-like presumption that it was never too early to begin one more failed presidential run. So is a deck of "New Hampshire Presidential Primary 2000 Trading Cards," 49 of them, one for each person who paid the $1,000 filing fee to join the fun. In a video, a stentorian newsreel announcer booms back at us from 1952: "This is the first real popularity test for the nomination—the citizens of the Granite State are not easily won—the country meeting places are hotbeds of politics . . . "

The obligatory shot of grizzled-out coots in mackintoshes sitting around a hot stove, then a pan over Main Street: "Eisenhower, Taft, Truman, Warren, Stassen, Kefauver! It's a free country, and no armed guards to restrict your personal freedom . . . "

The civic self-congratulation, the weather fetish, the faux-folksiness, the vanity candidate who just won't quit, the mystical moment when the whole meaning of a contest seems to tell in a single instant: Nothing's changed since but the fashions in outerwear.

Except, this year, the rise of a bloc of voters whose sensitivity to the issue of electability makes them sound like pundits. And except the fall of a candidate, no matter what happened yesterday in the seven February 3 primary states, who may have changed his party for good.


"You know how hard it is to remove a bumper sticker in four-degree weather?"

Tom Cormen, who teachers computer science at Dartmouth, is telling the story of what happened when he witnessed live on C-SPAN Howard Dean's guttural yowl in his Iowa caucus concession speech—the mystical telling moment of this 2004 New Hampshire primary. It's the Friday before primary day, and Cormen is relaxed. The languor that follows a good political rally can resemble, if the rally was very good—and the rally he has just seen, a "chili feed" thrown by a very energized John Kerry at an elementary school in the manufacturing town of Claremont, was very, very good—a kind of post-coital haze. He came looking for a candidate. Now he's relating how a razor blade helped consecrate his change of political heart.

"It was about in 200 pieces by the time I was done. I figured, 'He just sunk his own candidacy.' " When Cormen says, "And I really want to beat George Bush," he looks positively sated.

Call this guy Mr. New Hampshire: You couldn't find a more typical 2004 Granite State primary voter. He ended up voting for Kerry, though he originally favored Howard Dean. The day after the election, this is how he explained why: "I finally decided, 'Right message, wrong messenger.' "

John Kerry is a very different messenger from Howard Dean. His message, however, is very similar. "Electability" was the buzzword heard from New Hampshire again and again last week, just as it was this week from South Carolina, Oklahoma, Arizona, and all the rest. But thanks to Dean, the definition has changed from the last time it was so ubiquitously heard: In the 1990s, when the word was enough to give any dyed-in-the-wool liberal a shudder, it served as a stand-in for "politically skilled but ideologically timid." Now, it means both "politically skilled" and "eager to kick George Walker Bush's ass." It was Dean, of course, who first convinced his party that you didn't have to be like a Republican to beat one. And that even if George Bush cannot be beaten in November, an ass-kicking demeanor is the only chance the Democrats have of getting even close.

Political historians have a saying for the effect of presumably failed movements like the Socialist Party, which introduced concepts like Social Security and unemployment insurance into the American political conversation, or the Free Soil Party, which bequeathed the issue of slavery to the Republicans. It is that American third parties are like bees: Once they sting, they die. It might soon be time to revise the old saw to apply to a candidate. Howard Dean's presidential run may not be officially dead after yesterday's primary results. But one thing is certain either way: The sting he has administered to the body of a somnolent party has woken it up for good. It certainly got John Kerry going in New Hampshire.

What slayed them in Claremont was Kerry's liberal laundry list: of the cost of corporate subsidies to oil and gas companies in Bush's energy bill and to drug companies in the prescription drug bill ($50 billion and $139 billion, respectively); of the money the disgraced Tyco corporation paid for its Bermuda "headquarters," a mail drop ($27,000); the number of pages in the tax code (17,000)—a thrilling co-optation of an old conservative showstopper, détourné for our age of plutocratic ascendancy. Kerry pumped out the words in his intense yet mellow baritone—"Anybody in this room have any of those pages?"—and the audience rollicked in laughter. They got it: that the length of the tax code is bad not because taxes are cruel but because so much of it is devoted to coddling what he called "Benedict Arnold companies and CEOs"—at which the audience roared some more.

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