- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Is this (to use a phrase the headline writers have become suddenly fond of) Howard’s end? The formerly unstoppable Howard Dean came in a poor third in Monday’s Iowa caucuses, and in New Hampshire the wacky retired general Wesley Clark is said to be rising fast while the Dean balloon slowly deflates.

When precisely did the hot-air balloon receive the fatal prick? Was it when Al Gore decided to endorse Mr. Dean and thereby infected him with his own sure-fire losing streak? Was it when the media unearthed an ancient TV show from Montreal in which Mr. Dean mocked the Iowa caucuses as a travesty of democracy and a boondoggle for extreme, unrepresentative interests that stiffs the average voter (which happens to be true)?

Or is the real reason for the former Vermont governor’s decline that even among Democrats there’s a limited market for the ferocious anti-Bush anger Mr. Dean tapped into so effectively last year? With his sleeves rolled up to his armpits and veins a-popping in his forehead, Mr. Dean has been urging Democrats to “take back your country.” For a while it worked.

Six months ago, looking like a raging finger-puppet with a suit stuck on, Mr. Dean was raking in a huge pile of money from the Hollywood crowd and huge numbers of volunteers from young college kids he had improbably fired with a passion for politics.

Have voters now decided, “Governor, I am not in love with you anymore”? Late-deciding Democrats don’t seem to be quite as deranged in their anti-Bush fever as the hard-core Deaniacs. He was sold as this year’s John McCain: the outsider with the independent streak. In 2000, Mr. McCain was like a coiled spring — that side of him the thin-skinned Mr. Dean does very well. But when you went to a McCain rally, there would be tributes to veterans, and the Arizona Republican senator would cast his appeal in the kind of language few politicians can use without embarrassing themselves — calls to service, our country’s noblest ideals, debts of honor to those who wore the uniform, etc.

Mr. Dean, who got a bad-back deferment from Vietnam and then went skiing, can’t match Mr. McCain’s resume and doesn’t try. When you go to a Dean angerthon, it’s all negative: anti-Bush, antiwar, anti-tax cuts. And, in the end, when you’ve sated your angry base, the non-deranged members of the electorate generally want something positive, or at any rate a little less snarly. There’s a world of difference between Bill Clinton saying he feels your pain and Mr. Dean saying he feels your rage.

What’s mystifying to those of us who have been around Mr. Dean a while is that the Howlin’ Howard of the last year bears no relation to the guy we thought we knew. From my perch in New Hampshire, I watched him across the river governing Vermont through the ‘90s. Although he was certainly mean and arrogant, the chief characteristic of his political persona was its blandness.

I like to listen to WDEV Radio Vermont when I’m driving around — it’s got great shows like “Music To Go To The Dump By” and the Old Squire, who does epic doggerel about the North Country weather. And for 10 years the absolute worst day in the WDEV calendar was when they would pre-empt this fine line-up to go live to the Capitol in Montpelier for Gov. Dean’s State of the State address.

He would mumble through his script, sticking to the text, barely making eye contact; his forearms remained clothed. But like a Vermont dairy cow that has picked up a dose of BSE, Howard the Harmless Holstein has jumped the gate and turned into Mad How.

It’s an act, and one the previously somnolent governor tailored to the mood of his fellow Democrats. In recent weeks, he has been trying to move on. But when he stops being angry, as he did for a very sober foreign-policy speech, he is as boring as he was all those years on WDEV. And the sense that Mad How is some freaky stage persona is underlined by the way no one who knew the old snoozefest Howard Dean wants to go near this version.

Oh, well. If Mr. Dean overcomes the Iowa loss and then narrowly wins New Hampshire, he’ll be the comeback kid. The latter seems entirely possible. Unlike Iowans and the rest of the country, Granite State Democrats know Howard Dean well, and they’re voting for the dull centrist Vermont governor they’ve known for a decade, not the crazy guy who’s been on the loose the last year.

I have to say I see no evidence in my part of the state of a Wesley Clark surge, though that might be because it has been 50 below freezing the last two weeks and nobody wants to get frostbite taking the Dean sign down from his yard and putting up one for Mr. Clark. I would still bet on Mr. Dean in New Hampshire, though it’ll be narrower than it would have been, and it will present Mad How with some awkward problems as he moves on to South Carolina.

What a difference a month makes for the supposedly inevitable candidate.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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