Flight of the Bumblebee

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

"You want to talk about mission accomplished," John Kerry said. "Well, when it comes to coddling big oil; when it comes to serving up tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans; when it comes to opening up the doors for lobbyists and allowing them to literally write the legislation in exchange for their campaign contributions; when it comes to crony capitalism and dirty government, that's the mission accomplished for George Bush." Then John Kerry was mobbed. Four out of five folks I hauled from the scrum turned out to be former Dean supporters breaking for Kerry. "We think he can pull in Republicans," someone tells me. And it might sound crazy to say it, but it's not just Kerry's status as a war hero that makes that so. It might just be the very things that make him a "Massachusetts liberal" as well.

Yes, his most rousing peroration—"I know something about aircraft carriers for real. And if George Bush wants national security to be the central issue of this campaign, I have three words for him that I know he understands: Bring—it—on!!"—cuts an otherwise effective Republican message off at the knees. But it's also the liberalism, stupid.

After the week a gaunt, distracted, almost haggard George Bush has had—the $6 million Halliburton kickbacks, the six Iraqi battle casualties the day of the New Hampshire balloting, the arms inspector saying the whole basis for the war was a myth, the blown Medicare projection, the recovery he insists on boasting about even if it doesn't create any jobs—John Kerry's economic populist message cleaned up in industrial cities, in yuppie burgs, among young and old, even among New Hampshire's vaunted independents, who famously can vote for either party and this year turned out in droves to vouch for Kerry. Five percent of New Hampshire's registered Republicans even went through the trouble of registering a protest against their president, writing in one of the Democratic candidates on the GOP ballot. Some of them might even be the kind of people who habitually fell for conservative wedge-issue-mongering in the past, losing their health care and becoming bright Democratic prospects. It only makes sense. It's a sign of the times. When an economy cuts, do not evangelical Christians bleed?

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When He Was King
Dean Stumps in New Hampshire Days Before the Iowa Rout (4 min. 4 sec.) video by James Ridgeway

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There are strange convergences in this winter of our economic discontent, in which it's suddenly fashionable to be a liberal in the Democratic Party. One of the strangest is that, outside of Dennis Kucinich, the second-most-radical policy proposal came from Joe Lieberman: He's calling for paid family leave. And the most radical idea came from a general.

You can judge the importance of a political event in New Hampshire by the number of TV cameras it draws. The National Health Policy Forum, held in a gilded old movie palace in downtown Manchester, is a nine-bagger. Four candidates are set to appear here. Reporters by the dozen scribble in the light of their cell phones (although you might also take notes by the flash of the flashbulbs). Wesley Clark goes on and opens to this audience of health care professionals with the kind of unintentionally comic pander that's par for the course in a state where voters primp like opera divas for individual attention: "I've been a great consumer of medical care all my life," he says, earnestly.

Then he raises hell.

Why have health care costs skyrocketed in America? Clark says he knows a three-word explanation (trifurcated bombinations are the coin of this realm): "American—drug—companies!!" It doesn't receive the expected explosion back from the audience, perhaps because it sounds like such empty cant. But next, the mind-blowing details win over the crowd. A President Clark, he explains, will direct his secretary of health and human services to audit the pharmaceutical companies to determine the proportion of their profits derived from public subsidies, in order to plow the windfall portion of those profits back into medical research at the National Institutes of Health, not their pretty little television commercials. It's hard to think of a more aggressive assault on corporate prerogatives since Walter Reuther began demanding the United Auto Workers be granted joint decision-making authority at the Big Three automakers in the 1940s.

Walter Reuther's bid failed, of course. Can Wesley Clark's succeed? Not if Clark remains the only one selling it—the more he's exposed to voters, the less they buy him. This is a good thing. His acolytes seem besotted by the cartoonish view that someone who is simultaneously a liberal and a general must possess some talismanic power to cut through every political contradiction. This is magic thinking, of course, but Clark's campaign is full of magic thinking. His strategy seems rooted in a belief he can somehow convert Republicans just by coopting their magic words, like "family values" and "faith"—for Democrats are the ones who really care about such things. Boiled down, it's a claim that people are Republicans not because they have a distinct philosophy of what "family values" means, and a distinct philosophy of how the government might best promote them, but because they are not decent people. Now, some of us might want to agree. But this is bankrupt as a political strategy—because insulting Republicans squanders the one unique asset a four-star general possesses: his ability to get Republicans to cross over to liking him.

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