SAN JOSE, Calif. — Perfect weather for an all-American Fourth of July fireworks crowd: In the shank of the afternoon, a bright clear sky under a hot sun with the softest of breezes as people unfolded their blankets and chairs in front of the stage, tucked into the bounty of festival food and listened to pop and soul until darkness fell, the air cooled and the sky lit up.
You couldn’t miss the patriotism, but you couldn’t find much politics. This is not especially unusual in the United States, where celebrations of Independence Day always, for example, leave the British out. It didn’t have to be that way: We could burn George III in effigy every July 4. But that would do violence to a couple of elements of the American creed. First, it would be backward-looking. Second, it would suggest that the birthday of the United States of America was about something other than the United States of America, when there really isn’t anything else.
I wasn’t really looking for signs of partisan politics in San Jose on the Fourth of July. You could hear a few people grumbling after the fireworks about the inclusion of a Dixie Chicks tune in the musical program, but that was about it. Nevertheless, there was one presidential candidate represented with a booth in San Jose: It should come as no surprise that the volunteers were there for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
Mr. Dean is the first authentic phenom of the 2004 presidential election. When he first hit the campaign trail about a year ago, most of Washington treated him as a novelty candidate: possibly a source of a certain amount of comic relief, but certainly nothing more. The first tier belonged to senators and the House minority leader, not to a former governor from a state ranking 49th in population.
But it quickly became clear that Mr. Dean was different. His unabashedly populist economic message, his opposition to the Iraq war, his thoroughgoing contempt for the Bush administration and his deep-seated conviction that the Democratic Party was losing its way were having a galvanic effect on the hard-core partisans who get interested in presidential politics two years before the election.
Democrats’ losses in the 2002 election became the objective correlative of the Dean campaign message. A play-it-safe Democratic strategy predicated on the notion that the party out of the White House always loses seats in the mid-term election was blown up by the daring Republican strategy of putting President Bush’s popularity on the line on behalf of GOP Senate candidates. When Republicans retook the Senate, Mr. Dean had the best story line accounting for the Democratic failure.
Democrats, out of fear, had simply failed to confront Mr. Bush — on the coming Iraq war, on the economy and taxes, on corporate scandals, on health care. In failing to do so, they not only failed to connect with new voters interested in a progressive agenda, they also turned off their own base voters, who responded not inappropriately by staying home. What is the point of a me-too Democratic Party, anyway?
Not infrequently in American politics, not being from Washington is an advantage. Mr. Dean had himself perfectly positioned to take advantage of the Democratic cadre’s mounting sense of alienation. It’s one thing if you are making political gains by tacking away from the convictions of the party’s base voters. Bill Clinton proved you could do that and still keep the base happy and motivated by other means. But in the absence of winning results, the bitterness generated is overwhelming.
Mr. Dean speaks to this. When he released his second-quarter fund-raising results last week and came in at $7.5 million, clearly ahead of the pack, he validated his status as its most dynamic candidate. With $4 million of that total coming from Internet fund-raising, his populist tone is obviously resonating with the Democratic rank-and-file in a way that the cooler candidates are not.
Mr. Dean will likely have an effect on the Democratic field beyond his own candidacy. If other aspirants see his hard run against George W. Bush going places, they may be inclined to step up their own attacks. The road to the White House, after all, runs through Boston, where Democrats will hold their convention. The most brilliant centrist political appeal won’t matter in the least if Democrats are determined to nominate an unabashed progressive this time around.
Even if Mr. Dean’s diagnosis of what went wrong in 2002 is accurate, it doesn’t follow that firing up the base at risk of the center makes sense in a presidential election year, when perhaps more than 50 percent of eligible voters will turn out to vote rather than the 36 percent to 38 percent typical of a mid-term.
But Mr. Dean is about conviction, not strategy — or rather, his strategy begins with conviction. That’s why his people were out making fireworks of their own on the Fourth of July.