- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

When Howard Dean was asked a year ago how a little-known former governor from Vermont can compete with his better-funded Democratic rivals for the presidential nomination, he shot back a belligerent, pugnacious three-word answer:

“Message trumps money,” he told The Washington Times in a telephone interview as he drove to his next campaign stop in the Iowa heartland.

At the time, with only a tiny campaign staff in Burlington, Vt., and facing formidable opposition from Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and former House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, Mr. Dean said he hoped to raise $10 million by the end of 2003.

“But money can’t buy exciting the Democratic base,” he told the Times.

By the end of the year, Mr. Dean both had energized his party with his blunt-talking attack of Washington’s Democratic leaders for failing to stand up to President Bush’s policies — from his education reforms to the Iraq war resolution — and had parlayed it into a $40 million war chest.

The tough-talking, New York-bred doctor-turned-politician had ridden his grass-roots, Internet-driven campaign to become the party’s clear front-runner, with solid leads in national and primary polls, a barrage of favorable stories on the front page of the New York Times and cover stories in Time and Newsweek.

As with any front-runner, however, Mr. Dean went from being the man on the attack to the candidate in the cross hairs, and the lead he had built began to dissipate, propelled downward by an angry demeanor and a series of gaffes and questionable statements, such as:

• Suggesting President Bush had advance warning of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

• Maintaining that Saddam Hussein’s capture would not make America safer.

• That Osama bin Laden should not be prejudged without a fair trial.

• And that he wants to be the candidate for guys with “Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.”

Mr. Dean’s comments provided fodder for the other contenders and undermined his credibility within his own party, making many voters question his ability to challenge Mr. Bush in the November election. Ultimately, it led to a poor third-place showing in the Iowa caucuses behind Mr. Kerry and a free fall from the top of the polls leading up to New Hampshire’s primary this Tuesday.

Now the question has become: Can Mr. Dean make a comeback? Some Democrats think he can. Indeed, some tracking polls, calculating an average of three days’ polling, showed the New Hampshire race getting a little tighter at the weekend. Mr. Kerry was slipping slightly, Mr. Dean gaining a little ground.

“Dean’s challenge now is: Can he present a more positive vision of where he wants to take America? Can he do more than anger?” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, a centrist-leaning fund-raising group that has praised Mr. Dean for bringing new blood into the party and exciting its base.

As for Mr. Dean’s rant in his Iowa concession speech, which has become the subject of ridicule on late-night television, Mr. Rosenberg thinks he can put it behind him and go on.

“If George Bush can overcome his visit to Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., Howard Dean can overcome this, too,” he said, referring to Mr. Bush’s visit to the institution that at the time barred, among other things, interracial dating.

Filling the void

Beginning early in 2003, Mr. Dean pursued his core strategy of being the only candidate to excite the party’s activists by opposing the Iraq war, which he thought would dominate the primaries, and attacking the Washington establishment.

He made about 40 trips into New Hampshire, home of the nation’s first primary, visited all 99 of Iowa’s counties and addressed Democratic audiences nationwide, polishing his stump speech that routinely brought cheering Democrats to their feet.

It wasn’t until he and other Democratic contenders addressed the Democratic National Committee’s first candidate forum in Washington on Feb. 21, however, that Mr. Dean really broke into the national media spotlight and became a political force to be reckoned with.

His chief rivals, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Gephardt, had just spoken. Neither seemed to excite the party officials, but were politely received. Then Mr. Dean strode up to the podium and, as one DNC official put it then, “blew the roof off.”

“What I want to know is, why is the Democratic leadership supporting the president’s unilateral war on Iraq?” Mr. Dean said, angrily jabbing his finger in the air. He also asked why Democrats had rolled over on Mr. Bush’s Leave No Child Behind education-reform plan, which he said “had left every child behind.”

After a litany of attacks on his party’s leadership, each eliciting louder applause and cheers, Mr. Dean paused and said, “I’m Howard Dean, and I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

That one line triggered a thunderous, standing ovation, and the Howard Dean phenomenon was born.

“That was the seminal speech that really put Dean on the radar screen, that was the big breakthrough,” said Steve Grossman, the former DNC chairman who co-chairs Mr. Dean’s national campaign.

Mr. Dean had defined himself as the only major candidate willing to take on his party’s establishment. He and his campaign strategist, Joe Trippi, knew that the biggest complaint among Democrats was that their party did not stand up to Mr. Bush and the Republicans, that Democratic leaders were too timid and wishy-washy.

Many Democrats had begun saying they no longer knew what their party stood for anymore, and Mr. Dean had begun to fill the void.

Scrutiny begins

Mr. Dean told his advisers that he could afford to move to the hard left in the party primaries without undercutting what he maintained was a centrist and often conservative record as governor. He had balanced the state budget over five terms, had opposed gun-control measures and had cut some taxes in his first term.

But a deeper examination of his record as governor revealed a far different picture, one rarely mentioned by the national news corps.

In fact, he had raised many other taxes during his tenure as governor — gas taxes, property taxes, cigarette taxes, corporate income taxes and sales taxes. Vermont had moved into the top 10 most heavily taxed states in the country.

The Cato Institute, a libertarian public-policy research foundation, gave him a grade of D for his taxing and spending policies in his final term. The Almanac of American Politics called him “one of the four or five most liberal governors in the nation.”

On the campaign trail, Mr. Dean proposed a uniformly liberal agenda that included repealing all of the Bush tax cuts; raising the minimum wage; re-regulating the economy and businesses; and a protectionist trade policy that would require America’s trading partners to have labor and environmental laws comparable to those of the United States.

His message grew more strident and more anti-business as his poll numbers surged past the other candidates, and, increasingly, he copied the populist — powerful-versus-the powerless — rhetoric that Vice President Al Gore used in his 2000 campaign for president.

“We’ve allowed our lives to become the slaves to the bottom line of multinational corporations all over the world,” Mr. Dean said at Iowa’s Grinnell College.

“We are not cogs in a corporate machine,” he said in Marshalltown, Iowa.

The middle-of-the-road Democratic Leadership Council then became increasingly concerned, fearing Mr. Dean would run away with the nomination and doom the party to another 49-state defeat that Democrats suffered in 1972 with South Dakota Sen. George S. McGovern and in 1984 with former Vice President Walter Mondale.

Mr. Dean, the Democratic Leadership Conference said in a public memo to its party, was cut from the same liberal cloth as Mr. Mondale and Mr. McGovern and would virtually guarantee Mr. Bush’s re-election to a second term. Mr. Dean’s campaign was appealing to the party’s antiwar wing that was “defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home.”

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Shooting from the hip

As Democratic leaders began to question Mr. Dean’s viability as the party’s standard-bearer, the cumulative effect of his often shoot-from-the-hip statements that at first had ingratiated him with the party’s core voters began to take its toll.

After the war had toppled Iraq’s regime, he questioned whether the Iraqi people were better off with Saddam gone and after Saddam’s capture late last year, he insisted that the U.S. was “no safer” with the ousted Iraqi dictator in prison.

That remark, perhaps more than any other he made, triggered a sharp denunciation from his rivals and other Democrats.

“If Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power today, not in prison, and the world would be a more dangerous place,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who supported the war from the beginning and still does.

Mr. Dean then suggested that there should be no rush to judgment about the Iraqi dictator or even about al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who essentially has claimed responsibility for the September 11 attacks in taped messages.

“I have this old-fashioned notion that even with people like Osama, who is very likely to be found guilty, we should do our best not to … prejudge jury trials,” Mr. Dean said.

Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff for President Clinton, questioned whether Mr. Dean had what it takes to handle the nation’s national security.

“There clearly are concerns [in the party] about Dean’s ability …on national-security issues,” he told the Times late last year. “There is concern about whether Dean can rise to the occasion on this issue.”

The attacks against Mr. Dean, including a TV ad campaign financed by Mr. Gephardt’s supporters, became so numerous that he appealed in late December to DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe to step in and tell his rivals to stop criticizing him.

“If we had strong leadership in the Democratic Party, they would be calling those other candidates and saying, ‘Hey, look, somebody’s going to have to win here,’” Mr. Dean said late last month.

Mr. Dean also told reporters that he was only joking when earlier last fall he said he had sealed 145 boxes of gubernatorial papers for 10 years to prevent “anything embarrassing from appearing in the papers at a critical time in any future endeavor.”

It was one of many times Mr. Dean or his aides were forced to explain or retract a statement or to say that he was misunderstood. Despite their efforts, he continued to stumble.

A private man, he never had talked about his own spiritual values, a subject that some Democrats said the party had to address or else cede religious values to Mr. Bush and the Republicans.

So last month, after a trip into the South, he talked with reporters about his need to address this subject, noting that he had just learned how important it was among many Southern voters.

Then, after telling an audience in Iowa that he prayed daily, he told reporters that his favorite biblical passage was the Book of Job, which he said was in the New Testament. He corrected himself when it was pointed out that the Book of Job is in the Old Testament.

Coverage changes

Suddenly, stories were appearing that questioned his electability and recounting his numerous gaffes, and new stories were popping up about problems in Mr. Dean’s gubernatorial record. In January, a Newsweek cover story proclaimed: “Doubts About Dean.”

Typical of the sudden negative reporting was a 1,429-word story on the front page of the New York Times about the role of a top Dean aide in the awarding of a state contract to a health maintenance organization. An audit showed the aide once represented the HMO as a lobbyist.

The New Republic, a moderate political journal that has endorsed Mr. Lieberman, ran a cover story earlier this month, “Howard Dean’s religion problem,” that called him “one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history.”

“I’ve heard a lot of journalists say that Dean got too much good coverage too soon. And then, when the voters do not verify the media’s judgment, there’s a rush to catch up and even the score,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

Privately, some Dean advisers say periodic public explosions of his temper also contributed to an unraveling of his support in Iowa. A heated put-down by Mr. Dean of a Republican questioner at one Iowa event received wide television coverage across the state and served to reinforce an image of an angry, intemperate man.

“We made our own mistakes. We contributed to our environment,” Dean adviser Steve Grossman said.

As his rivals ratcheted up their attacks and his polls began to slip, Mr. Dean struck back at his Democratic opponents with ads that recounted how Mr. Kerry and Mr. Gephardt had voted for the Iraq war resolution, hoping to use some voters’ antiwar anger against them.

Dean advisers now say that his negative campaign created a backlash that led to his downfall in Iowa and his subsequent slippage in New Hampshire.

“I think the campaign, unfortunately, got caught up in a mutually assured destruction. The campaign got negative, harsh and vitriolic, and the voters of Iowa made it clear they were going to punish those who went negative,” said Mr. Grossman.


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