- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

I think we can all agree Howard Dean overreacted. I’m not talking about his overreaction on Iowa caucus night. I’m talking about his overreaction to his overreaction. Ever since last Monday’s audition for “An American Werewolf In Des Moines,” the Vermonster has been in sleep mode.

“What I’m not is a rock star,” he told Diane Sawyer, as she struggled to stay awake. No, indeed. He has turned into Perry Como. Not Perry Como sitting in a patterned sweater in a rocking chair singing “Sleepy Time Gal.” But Perry Como after some shortsighted elephant hunter has fired an extra-strength tranquilizer dart into his hide.

Instead of impassioned pleas about taking back the country so everyone has the right to live the American Scream, er, Dream, he talked in a voice so evenly modulated that Diane Sawyer kept dropping in tape of the Howlin’ Howard roar every five minutes like Baron von Frankenstein frantically clamping the electrodes to the monster and getting no response. Sitting next to the Vermonster, for the first time ever on TV, was his wife, Dr. Judith Steinberg. After being absent for months, all of a sudden she can’t leave his side, just in case his medication wears off.

As some readers may recall, having spent a decade watching Mr. Dean govern Vermont as a dull centrist, I have long argued that the crazy guy running around this last year was just an act, a bit of canny opportunism from a minor local pol who needed to get himself a national profile in nothing flat. Unfortunately, Dean’s simulated Mad How disease was so convincing he caught a touch of it himself. If you’ve seen “Lost In Translation,” you’ll know there’s a marvelous scene where sad middle-aged Bill Murray has a night out with Scarlett Johansson and comes to life doing karaoke versions of ‘80s rock songs. That’s Howard Dean. He’s right: He’s not a rock star. But for months on end he’s been doing rock-star karaoke with legions of Scarlett Johansson-type college cuties. You can’t blame the guy for getting carried away.

The trouble is he has now overcompensated. His minders have evidently told him it’s not enough to go back to being the authentically boring Howard Dean, he has to be mega-boring. In his interview with Diane from Vermont’s charmingly restored Norwich Inn, he seemed to be fading into the authentic colonial wainscoting. The Vermonster had become, in ‘80s karaoke terms, the “Calmer Calmer Calmer Calmer Calmer Chameleon.”

At Thursday’s Democratic debate in New Hampshire, the calmer he got — “balanced budgets … fiscally conservative … manageable budgets … budgets in balance … fiscally conservative … ” — the more the bored Dean-watchers speculated he was about to go berserk, like kids at the zoo eager to start lobbing pebbles at the slumbering gorilla.

Not even Al Gore, in his bewildering array of alternative identities, managed to be both crazy and comatose in the same week. The former governor seems to have come up with his own variation on the fiscally conservative/socially liberal shtick: vote for Dean — fiscally balanced, emotionally unbalanced.

None of the Vermonster’s many enemies in the Democratic Party could have devised as exquisite a torture for Howard Dean as this last week. But, whether they’ve solved their party’s problem is another matter. What seems to be happening on the ground in New Hampshire is this: Now that John Kerry is the sane alternative to Howard Dean, much of Wesley Clark’s support has leached away to Mr. Kerry. But at the same time, Mr. Dean has been so subdued and demoralized that some of his wackier support has leached away to Mr. Clark. If Mr. Kerry is the sane alternative to Mr. Dean, Mr. Clark is the crazy alternative to Mr. Kerry.

Don’t take my word for it, ask Michael Moore, the corpulent conspirazoid. He has endorsed Mr. Clark, not Mr. Dean. Message: Vote for the real crazy, not the karaoke crazy. In Thursday’s debate, Peter Jennings twice gave retired Gen. Clark the opportunity to repudiate retrospectively Mr. Moore’s characterization of the president as a “deserter,” as Mr. Clark failed to do when Mr. Moore made the charge standing alongside him. Instead, Mr. Clark claimed to have no views on the matter, not to have looked into it, and said Mr. Moore is “not the only person who’s said that.”

Mr. Clark doesn’t scream: he has that weirdly intense stare. But, for as long as he’s in the race, he’ll do more damage to Democratic credibility than any amount of howling from Howard. He’s very touchy about status: As he pointed out on CNN, he’s a four-star general while Mr. Kerry was a mere lieutenant. In the ranks of the deranged, he’s Field Marshal Flakey while Dean would be lucky to make corporal.

That brings us to the “Comeback Kerry,” as he styled himself last Monday, though even his missus, Theresa Heinz, could only force a grin at that line. In Iowa, the Ketchup Kid left Mr. Dean lying in a big pool of red sticky stuff, and establishment Dems breathed a sigh of relief. But it’s hard to see why. Consciously or otherwise, Democrats seemed to be trying to neutralize the war as an issue — the overwhelming majority is still opposed to it. But in Iowa they just wanted it to go away, so they could get back to talking about their issues — health, education, mandatory bicycling helmets, etc.

That sounds fine in theory. But let’s suppose it works, and the Democrats nominate Mr. Kerry, whose argument is that, because he’s a veteran, his plan to give Jacques Chirac a veto over American foreign policy sounds butcher than it would coming from Dennis Kucinich. Fine. But take away the war from Mr. Kerry and what’s left? An old-school Massachusetts liberal. Not a mere lieutenant, but a mere lieutenant-governor. To Michael Dukakis.

Mr. Kerry’s record on domestic issues is well to the left of Mr. Dean’s, and a much fatter target for Republicans. In brief, he is soft on drug pushers and murderers, big on tax increases and partial-birth abortion.

If I were President Bush and I had to choose between running against Howard Dean’s Vermont or John Kerry’s Massachusetts, I know which guy I would be rooting for.

So that’s the net result of the Democrats’ moment of sanity in Iowa. The runaway favorite for the nomination is an unimaginative doctrinaire New England Democrat, and his principal rival is a paranoid narcissist who thinks Mr. Bush is a deserter who allowed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to happen.

It’s too much to expect Democratic primary voters to boost Joe Lieberman up to double figures. But, if I were voting Tuesday, my calculation of the party’s best bet would be this: If it’s going to be the South against New England this primary season, better Mr. Edwards vs. Mr. Dean than Mr. Kerry vs. Mr. Clark.

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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