Saturday, July 5, 2003

It is always slightly discombobulating when someone you’ve known for years and always written off as a mediocrity with no talents suddenly leaps to phenomenal success.

In my line of work, it’s usually some fellow hack whose first novel gets optioned by Miramax for Cameron Diaz. But right now it’s happening on a much larger scale to someone called Howard Dean. If you have never heard of him, don’t worry. You’ll soon be never hearing of him ever again. But just for the moment he is, improbably, the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. As another famous Dean once sang, “Everybody loves somebody sometime,” and Howard Dean’s sometime is now. Go, Deano.

So who is Howard Dean? According to whose spin you buy, Howard Dean is either the new John McCain — a scrappy insurgent who is not afraid to speak his mind, etc. — or the new Bill Clinton — the successful Democratic governor of a small state whose winning charm makes voters swoon, etc, etc. Neither of these incarnations bears much resemblance to the Howard Dean I’ve been watching on my local news in New Hampshire every evening for more than a decade. Because of the way the mountains bounce the signals around, I can’t receive any Granite State TV stations, just Vermont’s WCAX Channel 3, so I never get any news on what my own governor is up to, just night after interminable night of Howard Dean.

He didn’t do much for Vermont. The eastern part of the state, just over the Connecticut River from me, is a patchwork of broken-down farms whose owners pay some of the highest taxes in the republic and get very little in return, except the sense that they’ve lost control over their own affairs. But that’s not the Vermont that matters. There’s another Vermont — the one colonized in the ‘60s by ponytailed granola progressivism and summed up by a remarkably prescient 1972 article in Playboy: “Get 225,000 counterculturalists to settle in the Green Mountain State and exercise their franchise — and you’ve begun a unique social experiment.”

Or more to the point: Just because these ideas are a surefire vote-loser everywhere across the country doesn’t mean they won’t catch on if enough of the tiny minority that believes in them moves to one small underpopulated jurisdiction. To the starry-eyed Democrat activist, as Vermont goes, so (eventually) goes the nation. In a field split between five lackluster congressional sell-outs and three fringe whackos, he has done a superb job at positioning himself as the heart of the party. As he put it in his craftiest soundbite to date, he’s there to represent “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” These are the people who are fed up being told by the slick consultants that they need to make themselves more indistinguishable from the Republicans, and then they wind up losing anyway, as they did in 2000 and 2002. At least when Bill Clinton sold out the left on welfare and governed as an Eisenhower Republican, he was getting some terrific oral sex in return. The rest of the party feels it has nothing to show for pretending to be “centrist,” and the Howardly Lion is their hero.

On “Meet The Press,” the would-be commander in chief didn’t know how many people were in the U.S. armed forces. Big deal. To his admirers, not knowing how many soldiers America has is a plus. To these guys, a lone GI would be one soldier too many.

But on the issues this crowd cares about, Mr. Dean is an expert. The reason he’s piling up all the big money from out of state boils down to two words: civil unions. Three years ago, Vermont became the first state in the nation to recognize a form of legal relationship for same-sex couples, and that puts Mr. Dean on the cutting edge of the issue du jour. Bringing civil unions to Vermont was “the most important event in my political life,” he says, though at the time he was going round the state telling folks he was only doing it because the Vermont Supreme Court made him, and, instead of the usual showboating public ceremony, he signed the legislation behind closed doors. But out in Hollywood all Barbra Streisand and the other high-rollers know is that, if gay marriage is your big priority rather than Iraq and national security and all the other trivia, then Mr. Dean’s your man. In a way, he is the first beneficiary of a prominent, organizationally effective, big-money gay bloc in the Democratic Party.

In fact, though it wasn’t designed with him in mind, Mr. Dean could have been custom-built for this election’s highly compressed primary season. Gay marriage is the perfect issue for long-distance pre-primary fund-raising, where he has managed to do serious and possibly fatal damage to Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Bob Graham. His general leftishness will play well with voters in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19, where he figures he can sink Dick Gephardt. His Vermontiness will appeal more to New Hampshire Democrats on Jan. 28 than John Kerry’s Massachusetts hauteur. By the time the big cluster of Sun Belt primaries rolls around on Feb. 3, Mr. Dean reckons he can use his record on gun control (Vermont has none) to ditch the Northeast liberal baggage and sell himself to Southern white males, seeing off his last opponent, North Carolina’s John Edwards.

I would say the South will be a bridge too far for Mr. Dean and the Vermontification of the Democratic Party. In electoral terms, Vermont is a polarizing state. It’s the Hillary Rodham Clinton of states. It has high negatives. It’s not like Kentucky or New Mexico or a gazillion others you’ve no particular view on. To most people in Bush-voting states, Vermont is a province of Canada, and they don’t mean that in a good way. But, even if he doesn’t get the nomination, in this critical pre-primary summer, Mr. Dean’s the pacesetter, pulling the party well to the left of where it wants to be.

My Vermont pals are stunned at how their hitherto obscure former governor has suddenly gone big-time. Either that, or their party’s decided to go small-time.

>Mark Steyn is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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