- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

This weekend’s rain in Washington, on top of a dusting of snow the night before, created some treacherous fog, making navigation tricky. Yet the inside the Beltway, lack of visibility was no match for another surprising political climate event — the fog created by the results in this week’s surprising Iowa caucuses.

Not only did voters rain on the parades of certain presidential candidates, but the outcome also raises some critical questions about the political ferocity of a key Democratic interest group constituency and the Internet as an organizing tool. The reduced visibility coming out of Iowa, however, is also consistent with historical patterns. That honking you hear in the distance may presage further shattering of conventional wisdom on the road ahead.

First, the caucuses may have detoured the presidential plans of Howard Dean, vectoring him on a shorter than expected trip back home to Vermont. While the former governor has the institutional strength (money and manpower) to continue his quest temporarily, his days as a serious contender for Democratic nomination may be numbered. Why? Iowa voters sent a clear signal about the limits of anger and hate in American politics. “Every party has its angry element,” one long time Republican strategist told me. “Howard Dean did an outstanding job identifying them and locking them up early. The problem is there were not enough of them to finish any better than third place.” While glass ceilings can break, Mr. Dean collided with a “titanium anger barrier” about a week ago, possibly making getting back on track nearly impossible without a significant shift in direction and rhetoric.

Early indications are that Mr. Dean’s campaign has suffered terminal navigational damage. His near catatonic, post-caucus appearance Monday night — when he rolled up his sleeves and nearly decked Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin with his flailing arms — left many objective outsiders wondering about his emotional stability. “I’m not sure what kind of reaction that was,” one Democratic operative said. “But it was very bizarre and inappropriate for a guy who was leading a couple days ago and came in third.”

The fog of January apparently blinded the former Vermont governor from seeing the need to highlight the other great motivator in politics during his campaign for president: hope. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in past campaigns — and a majority of Iowa Democratic caucus goers this week — all seemed to grasp this concept. Mr. Dean did not.

Iowa Democrats also throttled the political engines of organized labor — the bulk of which supported Mr. Dean or Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri. That loud sound you hear is the collective head scratching of most political pros around the country wondering what happened to the vaunted union “ground game.” “Our (labor) guys were nowhere to be seen,” said a Democrat who supported Mr. Gephardt. For all the talk about this being a big fight between the new services oriented unions such as (Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) and “old” labor (Teamsters and the United Auto Workers), neither team apparently showed up in full force. “This was a double loss for labor leaders,” a former Democrat hill staffer told me. “Not only did the two candidates they backed lose, but the majority of rank-in-file labor union members supported (Senators) Kerry and Edwards.”

Some may ask who the labor bosses support if both Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Dean implode; others may ask, “Who cares?”

Beyond labor’s underperformance, the Dean Internet phenomenon appears seriously overblown as well. According to a Fox News poll, Mr. Dean lost to both Sen. John Kerry and Sen. John Edwards among those who described themselves as “first time Caucus goers.”

And just when the pundits anoint Mr. Kerry as the new front-runner, the fog of January is unabated. History suggests winning Iowa is not the political equivalent of an onboard navigation system to victory in the Granite State next week. In the six presidential elections since 1976, when the nomination was contested, no candidate of either party who won the Iowa caucus has gone on to prevail again in the New Hampshire primary a few days later.

Voters are proving once again that driving through the political fog is a complicated endeavor. Front runner status days before an election, endorsements by party kingmakers, like labor bosses and former vice presidents, and even come-from-behind victories in Iowa, are not direct routes to the nomination. It is dark, cold and hard to see during this winter of American politics, so slow down; and, if retired Gen. Wesley Clark or Mr. Edwards end up winning in New Hampshire, the fog just gets thicker.


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