Iowa May Be Howard’s End

One way to look at life is that we’re all waiting. You’re born, you grow into the autonomy of adulthood, and then you have to find a way to pass your time until a) you enter your real life, the one that never ends and is full of joy, or b) you enter the meaningless black void that is death and the silence of the tomb. The trick lies in finding a way to spend your time that is pleasurable, satisfying and honorable. What does this have to do with political prognostication? I really don’t know. I just know that political pundits have chosen, as their way to spend the heart of their adult years, gathering the latest facts on and trying to explain politics.

They are all on somebody’s bus today, traveling with a candidate to a pancake breakfast or a potluck dinner. God bless them, for they work hard. The older ones, the boomer reporters and their elders, went through last weekend what they go through every four years: Not Iowa again! Then they stuffed their suits into a beige Hartman bag and got a taxi to the airport. They have been on the bus since 1972 or ‘80 or ‘84 and they are wondering if history hasn’t gotten flatter and thinner and smaller, if history isn’t merely recapitulating itself, playing out a drama that seems less central than once it did. But they go. Because it’s their job and they’re good at it. And because if they don’t go their peers will gossip. They know the true drama of life is being replayed elsewhere, whereas when they were 28 they thought the Iowa outcome really was the drama of life. That’s what reading too much Teddy White will get you.

The younger reporters on the bus will be saying cynical things right now, feeling that’s the right tone to project their world-weariness. And of course they’re right. Cynicism is not an inappropriate response when surrounded by artifice, and much of modern politics is artifice. In being cynical they’ll also be trying to fit in with the boomers. But the boomers haven’t grown more cynical—they started out cynical. They’re actually nicer now. And what they want is a good hotel with 24-hour room service.

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Just a month ago it was easy for pundits: Howard Dean’s in the lead, Dean’s got the mo and the dough. That was the common wisdom. But it has changed. There’s a story now. The new common wisdom is that Mr. Dean is no longer the lead car in the race, that he’s hit an oil spot and is spinning, maybe losing control.

I am a conservative and do not hope for a Democratic victory, but I do hope for a Democratic fight, and I think Mr. Dean would lose in a rout. He seems too odd, too politically immature and too essentially ungrounded to be president. So the new storyline is in my view good news.

The polls say Mr. Dean’s lead in the caucuses is tightening; Dick Gephardt and John Kerry are duking it out for second place; John Edwards is rising. Zogby says it’s Dean 24%, Gephardt and Kerry tied at 21%, Edwards at 15% and moving up. So even if Mr. Dean wins with something like these numbers, his competitors will immediately start saying, “Seventy-five percent of our party did not vote for Howard Dean.” And that will win them all more time.

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But this is what seems to me interesting and suggestive that the change shown in the polls is real. The press has kicked in and is playing a part in the drama. The journalistic establishment has become an anti-Dean mover. Tuesday’s New York Times piece on the absent Mrs. Dean, for instance—that was a piece with a sting. They decided to front-page it six days before the caucuses. The morning network news shows and the cable news shows are full of Mr. Dean’s gaffes, Mr. Gephardt’s rise and Mr. Edwards’s potential.

Why? It is true the press wants a race. They don’t want to spend the next three months filing “Dean Wins Again” and “Why Kerry Failed to Ignite.” But it’s more than that. Reading between the lines and listening between the lines, it’s hard to avoid the thought that reporters don’t really like Mr. Dean. The last time a viable Democrat rose, in 1992, the columnists for the newsmagazines and profile writers for the newspapers loved Bill Clinton with a throbbing love. None of those columns are being written now. They don’t love Mr. Dean.

This is not a shock. He seems as unlovable (unless you’re a Deaniac) as he is improbable. But I suspect there’s something else at work. I wonder if mainstream media aren’t trying to save the Democratic Party from Mr. Dean. They know he’s not a likely winner down the road. Boomer reporters who’ve been through the Clinton experience have sharp eyes. I suspect they’re put off by Mr. Dean’s Clintonian aspects, such as his tendency to dissemble. They’re pushing Gephardt and Edwards and even Kerry. They may push Wesley Clark. But they’re not pushing Dean.

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Someone said of Mr. Gephardt recently that he always looks like he has a fever. I laughed when I heard this because it’s true. But he also looks like a man who’s calm, stable, mature and experienced. Mr. Kerry continues to look like a sad tree, which is a challenge because his face and demeanor are at odds with his message and determination. But he too is mature and experienced. They’ve both been through a life in major-league politics—they’ve been through the shakedown cruise, they’ve been frisked and fisked. As for Mr. Edwards, he is distinguished by a certain cheerful cool and discipline, He’s positive, he doesn’t get down in the muck, and somehow in pictures he’s always looking up, unlike Mr. Dean, who somehow is always looking down from a stage. True, no one’s tried to kill Mr. Edwards yet, which would account for some of his cheeriness, but he does seem to have the right happy-warrior disposition. Any of these three could give George W. Bush a run for his money. (Mr. Clark, I’m afraid, seems even stranger than Mr. Dean. We’ll talk about him soon.)

Mr. Dean’s bad patch could ultimately be a gift to him. If he emerges triumphant on Monday and it isn’t a squeaker, he will soon be calling himself the Comeback Kid. He’ll claim he’s been through a terrible pummeling and emerged unscathed, proof he can go the distance. He’ll have propulsion into New Hampshire, where he’s strong anyway.

This is a real generational fight within the Democratic Party, those with years versus those with youth. The old versus the young. Every time I’ve seen a political war between old and young—between the liberal mandarins of the Republican party and the young conservatives, and then between the old right and the new right—I’ve been with the young. But this time I see wisdom in the older, middle-class and blue-collar Democrats who are wiping the mud off their boots before walking into the Gephardt fundraiser.

Mr. Dean’s people are proudly antiestablishment. For them it’s the Pussyfooting Party Powers versus an Unformed But Rising Mass. If the Democratic establishment reasserts itself in Iowa, many pundits—including me—will have to eat the words they’ve been speaking the past few months. Dean was not inevitable. In my case, never will words be eaten so happily.