from the Urban Heartland - Dean Meetup, Philadelphia
April 5, 2003
By Mike McArdle
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Half a world away people were people killing one another
for reasons that to many made no sense. And the man in the
White House who initiated the war was once again riding a
rally-round effect to high poll numbers, however temporary
they may be. But the calendar dictates that another Presidential
campaign is about to begin so on Wednesday night I went to
a "meetup" of supporters of about the only Democrat
who seems to be attracting any attention these days – Howard
Dean of Vermont.
Four years earlier I had gone to a similar meeting for Bill
Bradley. Maybe candidates attract activists who are like them.
The Bradleys were cerebral, a bit detached and met in conference
rooms at the University of Pennsylvania. The Deans are feistier,
more anxious to speak up and gathered in an upscale bar. The
Bradley campaign sent a professional organizer to chair the
meeting who was visiting a different city each night. At the
Dean meetup the hosts were locals although most seem to have
been veterans of many campaigns. But they didn't dominate
and take control of the meeting the way the Bradley representative
The Dean crowd seems like educated, mostly professional people
from their 20's to their mid-50's. A couple of them mentioned
that they were teachers. They were also overwhelmingly white,
disproportionately so for a group of people from a Eastern
metropolitan area. One of the first people to speak to the
group addressed the lack of minorities and suggested that
that situation would need to be remedied and quickly.
As people in the room began to express themselves the first
topic was how they came to like Dean? "He's the only
candidate without blood on his hands," said one. "He's
the only one who's been against the war from the start,"
added another. Certainly at this point the war in Iraq was
dominating the political thoughts of America and the Dean
candidacy was benefiting from the anti-war sentiments of a
significant number of Democrats.
Others cited Deans support for national health care. A young
man with an English accent said that he paid almost $1000
a month for drugs here that were free when he was living in
England. The health care issue, so badly handled by a Democratic
administration almost a decade ago, seemed to resonate with
many in the crowd.
Still other talked about Dean's support for reproductive
rights, gay rights and protecting the environment but it was
clear that Dr. Dean's appeal rested solidly on the war and
health care issues. A man who identified himself as a college
professor said that he felt Dean could help redeem the word
"liberal" from those that have tried to demonize
it recent years. Some others even mentioned the more conservative
aspects of the Dean program – his states rights approach to
the gun issue and his reputation as being fiscally moderate
to conservative. Some seemed to feel that these issues would
keep him from becoming a new McGovern.
A couple of speakers disparaged the Democratic "establishment,"
angry words were directed toward Congressional Democrats like
Gephardt and Daschle and toward the DNC in general, feeling
that they are way out of touch with the party's voters, too
comfortable in the current status of the party and unresponsive
to the concerns of many of their natural supporters.
One person mentioned that Pennsylvania is a state that traditionally
has had little to no influence in the selection of Presidential
candidates. The primary is always one of the last ones and
the nomination is almost always settled by the time it takes
place. So the most important influence that a Dean group from
PA could have in the primaries is to raise funds for the candidate.
The real battleground, he said, would be in Iowa and New Hampshire
and unless our candidate did well there we would wind up with
somebody like Joe Lieberman. One must wonder how Mr. Lieberman
would react if he knew that the mere mention of his name provoked
the loudest, angriest jeer of the evening surpassing even
the one for George Bush.
If the Dean supporters have a second choice for the nomination
it would seem to be Senator John Kerry. Most expressed a feeling
that Kerry let them down on the war issue and thought that
Kerry supporters should be migrating to Dean. I had had a
strong inclination to back Kerry myself but one morning when
I heard him on the Imus program seemingly trying to simultaneously
support and oppose the war with Iraq he angered me so badly
that I sent money to the Dean campaign. Still you got the
feeling that the people in this room could live with Kerry
as their standard bearer as much as they might prefer Dean.
Philadelphia is an overwhelmingly Democratic city and the
people at the Dean meetup seemed to know full well that most
of the Democratic voters in their city had probably never
even heard of their candidate. The organizers assigned people
to work on fund-raising, outreach to minorities and ways to
attract media attention. Still, Dean has moved in a few months
from being a real long shot to just being a long shot. He
may yet prove to be just the "flavor of the month"
and the Dean enthusiasm may end with the war. But then again
12 years ago similar meetings were almost certainly held for
a little known Governor of Arkansas.