Humpty-Dumpty, Off the Wall


Howard Dean delivered Charles Riggs III back to the Democrats. Riggs, a New York-based television editor who voted for Ross Perot in 1992, said he was “solidly independent” before he decided to back Dean. Now that the former Vermont governor has left the race, he’s considering voting for Senator John Edwards in the New York state primary.

Bonnie Maslin is still voting for Dean. The Manhattan psychologist and author followed her children’s lead, and volunteered her time and money to the campaign. She hosted parties for Dean, and contributed the maximum allowed. She made her last contribution after he dropped out of the race last Wednesday.

“I want someone with cajones,” she said. “I’m not sure that Kerry has any.”

The once-unified multitude that powered the Dean campaign may be devolving into an association of many minds headed off to points unknown. There are still things they share, including disappointment and an acute sense of injury. The national media, the Democratic leadership, or just the American political system conspired, the thinking goes, to keep their candidate down, and then showed him the door.

“The man didn’t lose on his merits,” said Maslin. “The Democratic Party has become insipid and mealy-mouthed. And I think the media is lazy. It’s like they shoved humpty-dumpty off the wall and said ‘Oops.’

“Who do I blame?” she continued. “‘Blame’ is not a complex enough word. It was more like ‘a negative synergy.'”

Maslin’s words are repeated by other Dean supporters, many of whom remain active participants on the campaign’s still-rollicking blog discussions. The electronic conversation on the Dean for America website has a different feel to it now—more honest, perhaps—the formality of good soldiering relaxed.

“The tone’s changed somewhat, as it’s focused on big strategy and reflection, as opposed to next week’s goals,” said Zephyr Teachout, the campaign’s director of internet outreach. “I knew folks would stick around, but I didn’t think they would to the degree and with the passion which they have.”

There are fewer official pronouncements on the website, and lots of “open threads.” After the governor’s latest public statement, in which Dean said a “vote for Ralph Nader is, plain and simple, a vote to re-elect George W. Bush,” he drew blogger ire for his seeming collusion with the pariah of the campaign, Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe.

But Dean’s supporters are a realistic bunch—pragmatism was always a cornerstone of the movement—and admit that while he may have been dragged down by bullies, Dean made plenty of mistakes on his own.

“There was a cognitive dissonance between the governor from Vermont and the candidate,” said Riggs, who was drawn to the centrist in Dean. “I wasn’t always thrilled by his speeches, often tinged with really leftist ‘red meat,'” he said, adding that he liked Dean’s farewell speech.

A former Dean staffer, closer to the campaign’s missteps, offered a more thorough catalogue of them.

“After Iowa, there was no expansion of the message,” he said, citing the paucity of policy speeches that could have showed voters Dean had more to say than “You’ve got the power.” He also said the campaign relied too heavily on labor unions to get out the message, especially among communities of color.

“These communities wanted to like him, but from the campaign, that feeling wasn’t reciprocated. [Dean] didn’t get himself out to see these people.”

According to the staffer—who, mindful of his bridges, preferred to remain anonymous—John Edwards is able to sell his vision to voters, a skill Dean once possessed but somehow lost. “People aren’t voting a campaign into the White House,” he said. “The governor had great plans, and his policies were very sound—visionary, far, reaching, and practical. It’s just a shame that he didn’t focus on that.”

Michael Rodemer, a professor at the University of Michigan, is still a frequent Dean blogger. “Please do not endorse anyone,” he wrote the day his candidate dropped out. “The campaign is not over. The convention is months away. The big states have not voted.”

A few days later, Rodemer seemed to accept the campaign was indeed over, but not before he had donated some money. “It’s not clear whether anyone at the top is listening,” he said of the blog. Roedemer invested a lot in the campaign. Not just money—”I gave what I can,” he said—but a lot of sweat, too. He canvassed door-to-door in Michigan, traveled to Iowa, went to the Meetups, and counted polls for the Dean campaign.

Rodemer is probably game for whatever Howard Dean decides to do next with his life, and says he will vote Democrat in November, no matter what. But Charles Riggs isn’t sure all of Dean’s supporters feel that way.

“This is an organization with incredible rainmaking abilities, and we can turn out a crowd,” he said. “It’s essential that we make an endorsement.” Riggs notes that given the number of first-time voters and independents the campaign attracted, effort will have to be made—and quickly—to keep the group together. “A lot of these people aren’t dyed-in-the-wool Democrats,” he said. “On the blog, many have said that they have no loyalty to the party.” Come November, Riggs fears, “they may just not vote.”

Hadass Tessler is still voting for Dean, but says she won’t vote for Senator John Kerry in November. It’s unclear whether this is residual anger for what happened to her candidate or just part of the contagious distaste Dean’s supporters show for the frontrunner. Tessler is even a former supporter of Ted Kennedy’s presidential bid (Kennedy actively campaigns for Kerry).

She joined a dozen other volunteers last Saturday, as a drizzle fell on Bryant Park, to remind passersby that Dean is still on the March 2 primary ballot here, and to persuade them that if enough people vote, Dean will win state delegates and carry his message to this summer’s Democratic convention.

Tessler has a different beef, and it’s with Dean’s New York campaign director, Ethan Geto. She said she was angered that Geto, in an e-mail sent out to New York supporters, seemed to encourage a vote for the other candidates.

“I busted my chops for this guy,” she said. As she spoke, a man in a flannel jacket walked by, aping Dean’s infamous Iowa yowl. “If Bush wins, the Democrats deserve every bit of it.”

Many Dean supporters remember their first glimpses of the man, on television, at some rally, or wherever. Hearing these wistful recollections, it’s easy to guess why John Kerry just won’t do, and why many of his followers seem drawn to the romance of John Edwards. Given Kerry’s momentum, it may not matter much, in the short term. Before November, though, Kerry will have to figure out a way to make people like Hadass Tessler vote for him.

For the time being, the Dean campaign and its supporters, in between jabs at John Kerry, are occupied with more modest pursuits. Dean sent a note to supporters on Tuesday, asking for help with the campaign’s $400,000 debt. And Teachout has challenged supporters to identify a hundred people to run for local office—candidates presumably inspired by Dean. At press time, she was up to 61. Teachout said she was considering a vacation, but not yet.

“First I have to get a bunch of folks elected,” she said.