Dissing Dean

I've never been an uncritical Howard Dean fan. The quirky Vermont ex-governor, who has made following the beat of his own drummer an art form, is less liberal than I would prefer on a variety of issues -- capital punishment, gun control, health care, budget policy. Nevertheless, the failure of Dennis Kucinich to catch fire has made Dean the progressive alternative by default. He's been presented with the banner of the left, and to his credit, he's been unafraid to wave it, especially in response to the war, the Bush tax cuts, corporate irresponsibility and unfair trade deals.

This posture has made the doctor a target not only of his more conventional rivals for the presidential nomination, but of the organized right and (especially) the corporate media. The clearest evidence that Dean is carrying a bull's-eye on his back was the orchestrated reaction to his infamous pep talk to supporters on the evening of the Iowa caucus. Sure, the "I have a scream" speech was a bit over the top and less than presidential, but it was what it was: an effort to pump up discouraged youthful loyalists, not a State of the Union address. And it was pure Dean -- part Paul Wellstone, part Jesse Jackson and altogether wonderfully, exuberantly wacky.

That's not the way the "gotcha" journalists and most of the media punditocracy saw it, however, and they descended like scavengers scenting road kill. The former governor was red-faced, out of control, too angry, ranting, bizarre, crazed, weird; pick your pejorative. It was a horrible, unseemly way to end the Iowa campaign, critics said. How dare Dean act unbowed and unrepentant in the face of defeat; presumably, he should have wept and apologized for finishing third instead of exhibiting a fighting spirit and a sense of humor. Columnist Mark Shields, an exception to the general hysteria of the fourth estate, remarked that Dean had been given a political death sentence for a campaign parking violation.

Keep in mind that the desire to put Dean in his place had been building for weeks among the self-appointed arbiters of our national politics. He offended, in the first place, by questioning the Iraq war. He compounded that by abandoning free trade, a tenet of faith for the American establishment, something the Washington Post, in particular, could not abide. He then had the temerity to attack corporate America for greed and avarice, infuriating the Wall Street Journal. And he had been the first prominent political figure to criticize George W. Bush by name, while the pooh-bahs of Big Media were still groveling at the president's feet in a combination of fear and admiration.

By the time the candidates reached Iowa, Dean was already a demonic figure to a whole host of interests: conservative Democrats of the DLC variety, who viewed him as the greatest threat to their hold on the party and their Republican-lite agenda; right-wing Republicans, angered that after three years marked by successful co-optation of the opposition, an uncowering Democratic voice was being raised against them; the national political class and the professional pundits, who saw in Dean the second coming of Gene McCarthy or George McGovern or Ross Perot or John McCain -- an electoral wild card likely to challenge the conventional wisdom, flaunt the established rules, and make their lives more difficult; and corporate America, which realized that the doctor might actually mean what he said about special interests, Washington lobbies and big money politics -- and might try to act on it.

Abetting them all were the ground troops of the mainstream press, anxious for a new story, especially one with an exploitable negative twist. Following their long-standing wont, they first built Dean up (step one), then waited for the chance to take him down (step two). By Iowa, the Dean-is-rising story had run its course, and the press was bored. Time for the Dean-is-collapsing story. Time to anoint a new frontrunner who, in due course, could also be taken down, thereby filling TV air and selling newspapers.

The moment was ripe for "the speech" and the overblown reaction to it. Dean had been softened up by a piling-on strategy on the part of his rivals, becoming the campaign's pincushion. Under the pressure, he had made some minor gaffes and missteps, notably a videotaped lashing out against a heckler who turned out, after the fact, to have been a Republican plant. But the speech was the coup de grace, and its aftermath reminded me of nothing so much as the 2002 Wellstone memorial rally in Minneapolis, which was condemned by people who either didn't see it, didn't understand it or willfully misinterpreted it.

Admittedly, Howard Dean was an unwitting participant in his own demise. He should have seen the storm coming and prepared for it, but he didn't. That showed his inexperience as a national candidate and his lack of appreciation for his unique and precarious position in the presidential sweepstakes. As the progressive standard-bearer, the outsider, the challenger of the establishment, he had made powerful enemies eager to see him fail. An experienced candidate would have been wary, careful and cognizant that his every word and every move could provide potential ammunition for those anxious to finish him. Alas, Dean decided to be Dean and threw caution to the winds.

So, we now (as this is written) exit the Feb. 3 electoral face-offs with the progressive champ on the ropes, hoping to be saved by the bell. For the sake of the Democratic party, let's root for his survival -- or even some comeback victories in upcoming primaries and caucuses. The best thing that could happen to the donkey at this juncture would be an extended nominating process, maybe even a brokered convention. The longer the contest can be drawn out, the longer Karl Rove and company will have to wait before weighing in with their estimated $200 million in GOP campaign funds, saturating the airwaves with around-the-clock negative ads against a comparatively underfunded opponent. The suspense must be killing them. Who do they attack and when? Even if Dr. Dean is not the nominee, a good, competitive race by him against John Kerry or whoever else emerges could be the Democrats' ultimate salvation.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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