Flight of the Bumblebee


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.

“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?

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.

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.

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.