The Dean Disappointment

I want to like Howard Dean. I don’t mean I want to support him; I mean I want to like him, or find him admirable even if I don’t agree with him. I want the Democratic Party to have a strong nominee this year, for several reasons. One is that it is one of our two great parties, and it is dispiriting to think it is not able to summon up a deeply impressive contender. Another is that democracy is best served by excellent presidential nominees duking it out region to region in a hard-fought campaign that seriously raises the pressing issues of the day. A third is that the Republican Party is never at its best when faced with a lame challenger. When faced with a tough and scrappy competitor like Bill Clinton, they came up with the Contract with America. When faced with Michael Dukakis they came up with flag-burning amendments. They need to be in a serious fight before they fight seriously.

I do not know how Howard Dean will do in Iowa, but I am one of those who think the Democrats will nominate Mr. Dean, and so I would like to like him and be able to imagine that many others will. I also would like to like him because now and then he says something that shows promise. Yesterday when asked if he ever wonders what would Jesus do, he replied: “No.” This was so candid, I loved it. In the same interview, when asked if his wife would join him on the campaign trail, he said, “I do not intend to drag her around because I think I need her as a prop on the campaign trail.” Political spouses often are dragged around as props. It’s not terrible to say so. It’s refreshing.

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But it is hard to like Howard Dean. He seems as big a trimmer as Bill Clinton, and as bold and talented in that area as Mr. Clinton. He says America is no safer for the capture of Saddam Hussein, and then he says he didn’t say it. He floats a rumor that the Saudis tipped off President Bush before 9/11, and then he says he never believed it. When he is caught and has to elaborate, explain or disavow, he dissembles with Clintonian bravado. This is not a good sign.

He is not a happy warrior but an angry one. In the past I have thought of him as an angry little teapot, but that is perhaps too merry an image. His eyes are cold marbles, in repose his face falls into lines of mere calculation, and he holds himself with a kind of no-neck pugnacity that is fine in a wrestling coach or a tax lawyer but not in a president. We like our presidents sunny, easygoing and optimistic. They have access to the nuclear launch code, and we don’t want them losing their tempers easily. Mr. Dean’s supporters no doubt see him as optimistic, but optimists aren’t angry.

There is a disjunction between Dean’s ethnic background and his personal style. His background is eastern WASP—Park Avenue, the Hamptons, boarding school, Yale. But he doesn’t seem like a WASP. I know it’s not nice to deal in stereotypes, but there seems very little Thurston Howell III, or George Bush the elder for that matter, in Mr. Dean. He seems unpolished, doesn’t hide his aggression, is proudly pugnacious. He doesn’t look or act the part of the WASP. This may be partly because of his generation. Boomer WASPs didn’t really learn How It’s Done the way their forebears did. (Boomers of every ethnicity are less ethnic than their forebears.) George W. Bush is a little like this too—less polished, more awkward, than one might expect. At any rate there is some political meaning to this. It will be harder for Republicans to tag Mr. Dean as Son of the Maidstone Club than it was for Democrats to tag Bush One as Heir to Greenwich Country Day. He just doesn’t act the part.

On the other hand, Mr. Dean’s angry look and angry demeanor will not serve him well as he tries to carry the women’s vote.

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Howard Dean is as much like George McGovern as 2004 is like 1972, which is to say not much. But Mr. Dean is not Mr. McGovern in a more important way. Mr. McGovern was guided and inspired by his own sense of a particular ideology. He reflected it, and his young supporters, who that year took over the party, shared it. They stood for something. Mr. Dean’s people—and Mr. Dean—don’t seem to have anything as coherent as an ideology. Instead they have attitude.

Howard Dean’s rise is about two things. The first is the war. Most of the other serious Democratic candidates were reasonable about it, if you will. Dean didn’t bother to be reasonable, or to appear reasonable: Bush is a bum and his war is a fraud. This was pitch-perfect for a disaffected base made lastingly furious by the 2000 election. Having gained the advantage, Mr. Dean never let go. His imprint was set. He left his competitors stuttering, “But at the time the president’s data did seem compelling, and so . . .” He forged on. His was the shrewdest, quickest read of the Democratic voter of 2004.

The second reason for his rise is that he is not an insider but an insurgent. He has an insurgent’s attitudes and subtle disrespect (or sometimes unsubtle, as when he referred to members of Congress as cockroaches). The young and Internet-savvy found this approach attractive. (An essay should be written by a Democrat on what it was about the Democratic establishment—the men and women of the Clinton era, the party members in Congress—that elicited such contempt.) Mr. Dean’s forces used the Internet with great and impressive creativity, and not only in fund-raising. Have you seen Flat Howard? It’s a life-size Howard printout you can get off your computer. You tape the pieces together and have a life-size Howard Dean. They’re ingenious and spirited in Dean-land.

Because Mr. Dean is operating as an insurgent, his supporters hold him to different standards. Is he inconsistent? No, he’s nimble. Is he dishonest in his statements? No, he’s just tying those establishment types in knots. Mr. Dean’s supporters seem to like him not in spite of his drawbacks, but because of them.

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Mr. Dean’s problem in the future will not be so much credibly pivoting right on major issues as attempting to pivot into something like the normal range in terms of temperament, personality and the interpretation of things he’s already said when he’s popping off—and he pops off a lot. Some of the things he has said or suggested—Osama bin Laden shouldn’t be presumed guilty, for instance—are the rhetorical equivalent of Michael Dukakis in the tank. He looked silly. He looked unserious. Mr. Dean is going to look that way, too.

I hope something surprising happens in Iowa, and New Hampshire, and in the South. I hope it becomes a real fight on the Democratic side, and I hope that fight yields up someone who is serious, substantive, and thoughtful. But that’s not what I see coming. What I see coming is a Dean nomination followed by a rancorous campaign followed by a Dean defeat.