- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

I would like to review this week a little footnote to the history of the 2004 presidential campaign, namely, Howard Dean’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. I think it may have something to tell us about the current ebb and flow of the presidential campaign now that Democrats have settled on John Kerry as their nominee.

Mr. Dean, a footnote? Well, yes, an important footnote, but nevertheless a footnote. He surely will be remembered for giving Democrats back their oppositional spine. The alacrity with which the Democratic field (except Joe Lieberman) converged on Mr. Dean’s uncompromising opposition to the Bush administration in the name of an agenda tailor-made for the core constituencies of the Democratic Party was entirely a response to Mr. Dean. If you are looking for idiosyncrasy or policy unorthodoxy of the sort that Bill Clinton brought to two presidential contests, you will not find it this year. This is a year in which Democrats are Democrats, not “new” Democrats or any other kind of exception.

My question is not why Howard Dean could not win the nomination. That territory has been well-covered. The question that I think is especially relevant now is, rather, why, by late fall 2003, did everybody think Howard Dean was going to be the nominee — at roughly the time, one must add, when everybody also thought that John Kerry was a goner?

I use the term “everybody” with due consideration. I mean, roughly, the politico-media complex whose business it is to carry on and comment upon politics. Oh, by now of course, “everybody” has managed to come up with good and sufficient proofs of why they never really, truly thought Howard Dean was going to be the nominee. But you know what? It’s all ex-post-facto rationalization. Mr. Dean was it, and “everybody” saw it coming.

The covers of the newsmagazines, the total broadcast dominance, the drumbeat from the blogosphere, the inability of the other candidates to generate attention for themselves: It was Mr. Dean’s season. What to talk about? The new politics of the Internet, the making of a new kind of politicalmovement,Mr. Dean’s revolution in fund raising, the daring opt-out from public financing for the campaign, the drawing of a whole new generation into political activism, the desire for a politics of real choice, not difference-splitting.

Oh, and much more than that: A Democratic establishment in Washington that, while in most cases opposed to Mr. Dean and worried about the party’s November 2004 prospects with him at the head of the ticket, nevertheless was, by late fall 2003, making its peace with Mr. Dean — making its services and counsel available, this one or that one stepping forward with an opportunistic early endorsement before it was too late to get any credit for hopping on the bandwagon.

In the ultimate (because farcical) expression of this, voters in the unauthorized, non-binding Jan. 13 D.C. Democratic primary — accustomed as they are to irrelevance and therefore to the role of ratifying what the national party wants — delivered to Mr. Dean his one and only primary victory outside his home state. He beat Al Sharpton 43 percent- 34 percent, with most of the rest of the field having stayed out.

What’s sad is that no one was in a position to tell D.C. voters on Jan. 13 that the Dean campaign was already dead. This would not become apparent until Mr. Kerry’s crushing victories in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary over the next two weeks. At least poor D.C. had a chance to rectify its error in caucuses Feb. 16, when Mr. Kerry, by then the overwhelming front-runner, won with 47 percent of the vote. Mr. Sharpton came in second at 20 percent and Mr. Dean an ignominious third with 17 percent.

Now, what was going on with the Dean boom? Well, I think the answer is that from time to time, and especially in the absence of exogenous information (such as is provided by actual caucus-goers and voters), the politico-media complex takes on the characteristics of a giant echo chamber. By late fall, all you could hear in it was “Dean!!-Dean!-Dean-dean-deandeandean.” Even as some elements of the politico-media complex began to scrutinize Mr. Dean more seriously in the late fall, the context was always his status as the undisputed front-runner.

The specific relevance of this to the present moment is that unless I am very much mistaken, the politico-media complex is operating like an echo chamber once again: The noise reverberating from within it is, “Vulnerable!!-vulnerable!-vulnerable-vulnerablevulnerable” — referring, of course, to President Bush and his prospects for re-election. Every new fact has to operate in the context of this rumbling background of interpretation. A high-growth economy with a not-especially high unemployment rate: “vulnerable-vulnerable”; a former staffer with the crackpot idea that Condoleezza Rice is incompetent: “vulnerable-vulnerable.”

I don’t know how vulnerable George W. Bush is. But before you climb into the echo chamber and start rumbling “vulnerable-vulnerable” yourself, you might want to ask those inside whatever happened to the Bush-Dean matchup they had planned for November 2004.

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