Flight of the Bumblebee

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

But that doesn't mean Wesley Clark's bankrupt as a bearer of policy ideas.

Memo to Senator Kerry: Holding pharmaceutical companies accountable for their abuse of public funds may well be both technically sound and politically brilliant. So, actually, are John Edwards's fusillades against the "predatory lenders, payday lenders, and credit card companies that are fleecing the American people every single day."

And Kerry might just adopt these messages. That is why the Democratic nomination process has been such a beautiful thing. The one who survives the process and collects the wisdom of his opponents into a single, smart platform might really be able to bring Karl Rove some pain. If indeed he does expire, Howard Dean, blessedly, will not have been the only Democratic candidate to sting before he died.


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

Thank Howard Dean. But damn him first. His movement, if not yet his candidacy, has failed—been failed by its champion, and only partially because the candidate hired a telecommunications lobbyist last week as his campaign's new CEO (yes, Deaniacs, you are now being directed by a "CEO"). How one responds to excess adulation is a test of character. Dean has failed it. He has allowed his following to become a cult, and he has allowed himself to act like its guru.

Cults can't win elections. They demand too much commitment as the price of support. Anyone but a Deaniac could see that just by showing up at the Vermonter's closing-night rally in New Hampshire—if, that is, you could find it. Everyone else held their party within a short driving or walking distance of downtown Manchester, so interested Democrats could bop from one Tuesday-night bash to another—all except those who wanted to show up to look in on Dean's, tucked miles away in the middle of nowhere. In order to participate, in other words, you already had to have committed to it, exclusively, in the first place. That's looking more and more like the meaning of Dean's campaign itself: a fun show to watch, but if you're among the uninitiated, you feel like you can only watch, not participate.

That night, the layers of insider ritual—for instance, the way the crowd chanted along with stump-speech greatest hits like Dean's singsong list of nations with better health care systems than ours—made you feel like an outsider, like you'd wandered into the wrong summer camp. But when he led the crowd in a rousing chorus of the old favorite "Even the Costa Ricans!" at that closing rally, I still just about wanted to kiss him.

"Frustrated. Tired. Unhappy": Those are the three words New Hampshire's feisty Democratic chair, Kathy Sullivan, offers to describe her party in the wake of the recount that Al Gore should have won. She recalls the week things felt even worse: when Democratic senators refused to filibuster the nomination of John Ashcroft for attorney general. "The Democrats in Washington had a moment in which they could have taken a stand and said: 'No. We're not going to let this happen.' And they didn't do it."

Then came the disastrous 2002 off-year elections. "Such a bad year for us. People just felt down. Hollowed out.

"And here comes Howard Dean. And I think what Dean has done has in some respects given the party its swagger back."

And so, over a quarter of a club sandwich in a Nashua hotel coffee shop, she begins a peroration of her own. "And we said: No. We can beat this guy. Because he's wrong on Iraq. Because he's wrong on the environment. Because he's wrong on education. And Dean just starts getting people excited again. . . . And for that, no matter what happens to Howard Dean, his running for the president did a good thing for this party. It just got everybody energized again."

He might not get there. But if the Democrats make it to that Promised Land on Pennsylvania Avenue, Dean will have been the one who led us out of the desert in the first place.

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