The New Electable Howard Dean


Howard Dean waxed magnanimous Sunday, reacting to the broadly welcomed announcement of Saddam Hussein’s arrest. Progress in Iraq could be terrible news for a Democrat running actively on the premise that the war there was wrong.

“This is . . . a great day for America,” Dean said, adding that President George W. Bush deserved a “day of celebration.” Hussein’s arrest, he said, underscored the need to more quickly return sovereignty of Iraq to its people.

His Democratic opponents were not so generous, at least not to him.

Joseph Lieberman moved to inject some life into his wilting campaign with a little domestic bellicosity, saying, “If Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power today, not in prison.” The Connecticut senator, his hawkish confidence now restored, also called for Hussein to stand trial in the United States, so that he might face the death penalty. John Kerry joined Lieberman in suggesting that their support for the war was now vindicated.

There were no signs, at press time, that much had changed in Iraq. In the last two days car bombs killed 27 Iraqis. An American soldier was killed Sunday while defusing a roadside bomb.

And the Lieberman and Kerry attacks suggest that despite the dramatic capture of Hussein, the Democrats in this primary season are still dealing with the other news—the emergence of Dean as clear front-runner.

In the past few weeks, Dean has built a commanding lead over his rivals, buoyed most forcefully by the endorsement from Al Gore. Gore’s support carried with it the imprimatur of the Democratic respectability that Dean badly needed. Polls showed that after that announcement, Dean became the favorite of Democratic voters nationwide, and importantly, the leader among those in Iowa and New Hampshire.

This month, Dean’s campaign has moved past the single issue that his critics said made him unelectable—his anti-war rhetoric. While his innovative and successful fundraising strategy and his healthy poll numbers have been tracked for some time, his policy proposals have been somehow obscured by the very passion that first attracted the crowds.

Officially, his campaign maintains it was never concerned that Dean was becoming too closely identified with his opposition to the invasion of Iraq. The war, said Jay Carson, a Dean spokesperson,”is just a metaphor for standing up for what you believe in.”

But any misunder-standing was largely Dean’s fault. On a number of fronts—including foreign policy and the economy, the two areas that Dean has suggested are vital to a successful candidacy—the campaign had yet to offer a vision, save some very broad strokes. So in December, Dean looked to define himself, delivering major policy speeches on race, national security, and education. Later this week, he plans to talk about the economy.

Prior to Hussein’s capture, and indeed before Gore’s endorsement, Dean realized that to navigate the waters of 2004, he was going to need a bigger boat.

Dean’s speech Monday in Los Angeles was his first serious foreign policy foray since September, when he wrote an editorial on national security in The Arizona Republic. “The capture of Saddam is a good thing, which I hope very much will keep our soldiers safer,” he told the audience in L.A. “But the capture of Saddam has not made America safer.”

Stressing that his position on the war had not changed, Dean moved on to the matter that he surely hopes will move voters come election time: national security, and the threats still posed by weapons of mass destruction.

The former governor also devoted time to what one of his advisers called “a foreign policy that brings hope and opportunity to people around the world,” and included his global initiative on HIV/AIDS, and debt relief for poor nations.

Taken together, it was a radical revision of Bush Abroad, carefully structured to include all the relevant vocabulary. Dean knows that WMDs and terrorism are threats that scare Americans; instead of ignoring this, he sought to prove that he could be tough, too.

“I will call on the most powerful armed forces the world has ever known to ensure the security of this nation,” he said.

He rolled out his “kitchen cabinet,” a mix of Clinton-era diplomats, former generals, and other think tank types, including the Brookings Institution’s Ivo Daalder. The names will hearten moderates, and assuage the Democratic leadership, worried that the presumptive nominee was a bit on the crunchy side.

In an interview on Saturday with The Washington Post, Dean offered other details, promising shifts of U.S. policy towards North Korea, Palestine, and Iraq. He advocated bilateral talks with the regime of Kim Jong Il, and embraced the Geneva Accord as a basis for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He also called for immediate elections in Iraq to replace the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council there.

His thoughts on Iraq were most anticipated, and not just because of recent events. Candidates like Clark and Kerry have flaunted their experience, both as soldiers and participants in a number of international conflicts. Dean has no real foreign policy experience, and has displayed a lack of depth when answering questions about post-war Iraq.

It’s not clear if his policies will go far enough to satisfy some of Dean’s early supporters, and progressives that have rallied to his side. Many will note that the more controversial proposals did not make it to the body of his speech.

Franklin Kramer, a former official in the Clinton administration and one of Dean’s advisers, called the candidate a “centrist.”

“He is not in any way opposed to the use of force,” he said. “And he believes in the approach that has worked for the U.S. for many years,” a mix of military pressure, diplomacy, “and activities that go beyond that—generating coalitions and partnerships.”

Al Gore to other Dems: Get lost.

(Photo: Shiho Fukada)

A week before Sunday’s news from Iraq, Dean tackled America’s racial politics, trying to go beyond the conventional appeal to just say no to Bush.

He traveled to Reverend Joiquim Barnes’s small church in Columbia, South Carolina, where he was joined on the dais by another big draw—Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. At ease and popular in this setting, Jackson would speak first and introduce Dean, who is still finding his way in front of black audiences.

Oddly, the church wasn’t nearly full.

The day before, Dean had thrown out “the red meat”—the nickname for his stump speech—to the party faithful at the Florida Democratic Convention, a hyped-up, placard-waving throng in the ballroom at a Disney World hotel. When he was done, he strolled out of the giant hall, sucking out all the life he had stirred, and a lot of the people too. Poor Dennis Kucinich was left appealing for courage and change to a half-full room.

But the ground under this church at the intersection of Ridgewood and Wildsmere in Columbia was less familiar, and possibly more important.

Dean has to prove to his doubters that he can compete for votes, both black and white, in the South. His campaign hopes that after his stops here, the excitement will follow him, eventually leaving competitors like Dick Gephardt, Wesley Clark, and John Edwards nothing but half-full rooms. For the moment, though, polls show that Dean still trails all of those men in conservative South Carolina. And while black voters are strongly anti-war, and a majority of them oppose Bush, they are far from decided that Dean represents the best alternative.

Congressman Jackson took the stage, filling the church hollows with a highly charged sermon. Reminding parishioners of his family’s deep roots in South Carolina, he recounted the biblical tale of General Naaman, the Syrian leper who, despite his record of great military service, could not shake the stigma of his disease.

“Christ did not die on this altar between these two candles,” he continued, his arms outstretched and his hands now quivering.

“He died on Calvary between two thieves. Between—two pimps, if you will. Between two pushers.”

This was allegory. The sick in America deserve health care, Jackson reasoned. “Between—two health care thieves,” he exclaimed. Millions of children expected higher-quality education, the congressman thundered. “Between—two education thieves!”

Murmurs of broad agreement floated up from the congregation, hit the low roof of the church, and journeyed toward Jackson, who by now was running very hot. “The Christ that we serve, died engaged in the process for change,” he said. The congregation now had Jesus on its side, a reason to shout. “You’ve gotta believe that we can beat George Bush.”

Howard Dean weighed the speech, smiled, and surely wondered how on earth he would top it. At least Jackson had played to Dean’s strengths, citing issues he hopes will define his campaign: health care, jobs, and education.

Taking his turn at the pulpit, he spoke slowly and softly. “I have to follow Reverend Barnes,” he said, smiling. “I have to follow Congressman Jackson. I have to follow the choir?” He looked around, soaking up a bit of sympathetic laughter.

“I am grateful to be here,” he began.

Two days later, Dean was indisputably the man to beat.

This was a collision of happy accidents, the fruits of a shrewd campaign, or maybe parts of both. But on December 9, two days after the trip to South Carolina, Al Gore endorsed Dean, ending, in the minds of many pundits, the Democratic nomination race.

There was wide speculation on why it had happened and what it meant. To some, the endorsement heralded the start of a new, powerful faction of the Democratic Party. A ragtag guerrilla movement mobilized on the Internet, united in opposition to the war in Iraq, and made powerful by liberal groups like,, and the myriad activist groups thriving under the Dean campaign umbrella.

Much hay was also made of Gore’s personal motivations. Perhaps this was a parry of the Clintons’ support for General Clark. Or simply recognition that whatever the Democratic Party stood for when Gore ruled the roost, it needed an overhaul, and Dean was the man to do it.

Gore, speaking in Harlem, called Howard Dean the only candidate “who has been able to inspire [voters] at the grassroots level.” The former vice president all but called on the rest of the Democratic hopefuls to drop out of the race. “Democracy is a team sport,” he warned. “We can’t afford to be divided amongst ourselves.” On the strength of the endorsement, Dean was able to raise almost $700,000.

“Eight months ago, Howard Dean was no one with nothing from nowhere,” said Phil Noble, head of South Carolina’s Democratic Leadership Council. “Now it’s over, except for the countin’ and the shoutin’.”

To viewers just tuning in to the Dean show, Gore’s surprising stamp of approval was a windfall. But to some who had been watching, the doctor’s horse was simply winning, and Gore wanted part of it.

That day in South Carolina, Dean delivered a serious speech on race, not at Joiquim’s church but before a mostly white crowd in a hotel conference room. He charged that Republicans since the Nixon administration had been running their Southern campaigns based on “guns, God, and gays.” He reminded the group that phrases like “racial quotas” and “welfare queens” were code, signals to white America that “minorities were to blame for all of America’s problems.” Dean’s speech emphasized a commonality of concerns, irrespective of race.

“There is nothing black or white about having to live from one paycheck to another,” he told the crowd. “Jobs, health care, education, democracy, and opportunity. These are the issues that can unite America.”

Dean has spoken on these issues before, but never in as much detail. And he did it in the South, with Jesse Jackson Jr. at his side.

“He came and delivered a message,” said Phil Noble, who watched the speech. “That’s unusual for a politician, and vital in South Carolina.” Noble also noticed how white the room was, and he blamed the Internet. While online organizing has been Dean’s great strength, many blacks don’t have access to computers, fueling the charge that the campaign is indifferent to black voters.

“If you sat down and designed a candidate to be maximally attractive to Southern voters, it wouldn’t be Howard Dean,” said Noble. “But that doesn’t mean we won’t accept him. He talks a little funny, but our ears will get attuned.” Southerners, Noble pointed out, are “disproportionately without health care, insecure about jobs, and grossly disproportionately concerned with poor education in schools.”

“Besides,” said Noble, “Southerners like feisty people. And Dean is a Yankee redneck.”

At the end of Dean’s remarks, he and Jackson performed a kind of duet. After Jackson called up voters who might not be registered—because they had changed their names or were about to turn 18—Dean shook their hands. Jackson, like his father, prides himself on his voter registration work.

The congressman was effusive after the speech, telling reporters how impressed he was with the outreach message and pledging to work “this entire state on behalf of Governor Dean.” But when questioned about Dean’s contention that there are only “human concerns”—and not, perhaps, issues that just affect blacks—Jackson seemed to hesitate.

“I think he understands this issue enough, and he will grow beyond this point,” he said.

By week’s end, Representatives Jesse Jackson Jr., Robert Scott, and Elijah Cummings had all endorsed Dean. The Black Commentator, a widely read progressive online journal, called his speech “the most important statement on race in American politics by a mainstream white politician in nearly 40 years.”

Last month, a reporter spotted a printout tacked to a wall in Dean’s New York campaign headquarters. It was a posting from the Note, ABC News’ website on politics. Entries on a long list of observations about the Dean campaign included: “What doesn’t kill Howard Dean only makes him stronger”; and “Howard Dean Doesn’t Have Cable TV.”

Observation #16 was more serious, if not a little wordy.

“Dean can theoretically win a general election race against President Bush, but not without growing significantly as a candidate and a person, including and especially in rhetorical and symbolic relationship to faith, family, freedom, and national security.”

Eric Schmeltzer, the campaign’s New York press secretary, admitted he hadn’t even noticed the entry. The list was on the wall, he said, because of observation #18, which claimed that Dean staffers have more fun than those who work for other campaigns.

But #16 seems to have been internalized, and in December—despite the Dean campaign’s attempts to deny the change—a transformation seemed to be under way.

So Dean stood at the pulpit that Sunday in South Carolina, anxious to make new friends. He had listened to Jackson, his host in the South, and had perhaps considered articulating a little faith, freedom, and values.

“I’m reminded that Jesus saw the woman at the well,” he said. “I’m reminded that Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple. I’m reminded that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for they had everything and gave nothing to those who were in need.” This was more Jesus than anyone could remember from the former governor. All the allegory needed was a little direction.

“We need jobs in this country,” said Dr. Dean. Then he threw out the red meat.

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