from the Primary Trail: Dr. Dean's House Calls
By Michael McCord
Note: Democratic Underground welcomes articles about individual
Democratic candidates for political office. Publication of
these articles does not imply endorsement of any candidate
by the editors of Democratic Underground.
A year ago the notion of a "Dean Juggernaut" would
have been fantasy. Even six months ago, the concept was a
punch line in the making but today with the New Hampshire
primary fast approaching, it's a sobering - no make that horrifying
- fact for the rivals of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
"Every day I wake up sick," a staffer from a rival
campaign responded when asked about Dean. "They (the
Dean campaign) act like it's Mardi Gras every day and we're
just dressing for a funeral." The candidate who couldn't
afford a pollster at the start of his campaign is now at the
top of primary opinion polls.
All this frontrunner, opinion chatter is essentially meaningless
today. On the first-in-the-solar-system primary planet, watching
so-called frontrunners fall on their face is quadrennial pastime.
On a cool autumn evening late last week, I attended a Howard
Dean revival session at the Rochester Opera House. Dean, he
of the East Hampton (N.Y.) Deans, a former banker, ski bum,
practicing MD, and center-of-the-road governor is by far the
most unlikely rise to prominence by a Democrat since Jimmy
Carter in 1976.
Rochester, the largest city in New Hampshire's seacoast region,
has a blue-collar personality and has watched its manufacturing
base slowly evaporate over the past decade (the largest employer
in Rochester is the City of Rochester itself). Here is a jobless
recovery case study where the official unemployment rate is
lower than the national average but underemployment is the
It's a good place to consider Dean's curious populist magnetism
and his appearance was a rollicking affair. The place was
mostly filled with more than 375 Dean fans and potential supporters
who waited patiently as Dean ran almost an hour late from
a previous campaign stop. The patience of his audience was
one thing - the fact that they were there at all on a Friday
night in November (the night life in southeastern New Hampshire
is actually quite lively) speaks volumes about his current
At this and other rallies I've witnessed, Dean's support
cuts across class and cultural lines and includes the young
and old, independents who voted for John McCain, liberals
who supported Al Gore and Bill Bradley, environmentalists,
stray Republicans, blue collar workers and professionals of
all stripes. And the collective mood is like a trip to a political
Disneyland where it's a small world after all and all things
Dean came to Rochester the day after tens of thousands anti-war,
anti-George W. Bush protesters in London cheered as they toppled
a cardboard statue of W. Bush in Trafalgar Square. Dean took
to the opera house stage to a roar of cheers on the day when,
after month's of Bush-bashing, the Republican establishment
began to strike back by releasing a trashy, fearmongering
television ad extolling the warrior resolve W. Bush as he
fights the holy war on terror - while slyly smearing the patriotic
credentials of those who dare criticize W. Bush's fetish for
preemptive war while helping to make terrorism a high-growth
It was, of course, Dean's strident opposition to the Iraq
war that separated him early from his main rivals, the D.C.
pols Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, and John Edwards
who voted in favor of giving Bush political cover for his
Iraq adventure (they now claim that Bush pulled a unilateral
bait-and-switch on them). We in New Hampshire remember Dean
as the feisty next door governor who practiced the fine art
of making political enemies across the spectrum (it's safe
to say that Dean pissed off more liberals and progressives
than GOPers during his decade-plus run as governor).
And he doesn't appear to have lost his touch. More than any
candidate, Dean seized the Bully Pulpit and with his blunt,
naturally pedantic, and biting wit style (he does have an
easy mark in Bush), he has become the beacon of hope for the
legions of angry and mistrustful voters - who are as equally
furious with the Bush regime as they with the Democratic party
Dean is articulate and smart with an intelligence in action
that borders on arrogance (i.e., his pick-up trucks with Confederate
flag flap was a mystifying, self-inflicted wound). As with
any candidate, there is muddle about who exactly Dean is (liberal?
moderate? conservative?) and where he stands on the issues
(if you've followed the paper trail, Dean's anti-war stance
is more ambiguous than publicly presented). But Dean's strength
(and appeal) is that he exudes no doubt about who he is -
Dean is unlikely to say "I stand before you as my own
man" as Al Gore famously confessed in 2000 - and is equally
clear about his political purpose: defeat Bush and alter the
Dean's political clarity feeds a supply and demand hunger
for many disenchanted voters. They are demanding regime change
and a candidate who will stand up and smite the naked emperor.
Dean supplies the bravado and he's been successful so far
in the greenhouse atmosphere of the New Hampshire primary
by employing a hearts and minds campaign based on treating
voters, he says, "like adults" and not consumers.
He wants converts.
The early campaign revivalist feel of Dean's stump speech
has evolved into a more standard hit list of issues (environment,
health care, energy, education, national security) delivered
in a blunt counterpoint manner (one female supporter, who
has seen Dean speak in person before, told me she missed his
earlier fiery broadsides when he called D.C. politicians "cockroaches.")
He's been accused of exploiting anger and little more but
this is a lazy charge. I think Dean is a wonk's wonk at heart
and he could put his audiences to sleep with the narcotic
of government minutiae if he wished. Unlike charming Bill
Clinton, another small state governor when he campaigned here
in 1992, there's nothing warm and fuzzy about Dean - he comes
across as roll-up-the-sleeves and let's get to work executive.
On the stump, Dean deftly wraps policy and outrage together.
He likes balanced budgets and slams W. Bush for running a
"credit-card" presidency. He attacks the current
Medicare and energy bills as frauds and indicative of the
legislative quality of the Bush era - "99 percent junk
and 1 percent good." Dean mocks Bush's No Child Left
Behind education law for spreading Texas education failure
to the rest of the country until there is "no behind
left." (Dean is less specific and even less convincing
on the issue of saving jobs being sacrificed to the globalization
In his Rochester speech, Dean showed he's becoming bolder,
criticizing Bush for being a failure on national security
grounds and taking the fight onto ground which the GOP believes
can't be taken. Just as he did when deciding to opt out of
campaign finance money and restrictions, the message is clear
- I'm not gonna take Bush's crap. Dean also promised the Rochester
crowd to "restore honor, dignity and respect" to
the White House when he wins: an amusing theft of Bush's mantra
in 2000 and a sly reminder to Dean supporters (as if they
needed reminding) that Bush is a corrupt liar.
Yet, the most revealing portion of the Rochester event was
not an angry broadside. It came when Dean was asked about
gay marriage in the wake of the Massachusetts Supreme Court
ruling a few days earlier. Dean danced around his support
or not of gay marriage by framing the issue as a matter of
equal rights but then he added something else. Dean signed
the country's only civil union law in the summer of 2000 and
it tore Vermont apart politically (in a close reelection bid
a few months later, he was challenged by progressives and
right-wingers). Dean said "98 percent of what we (elected
officials) do is resource allocation" but signing the
civil union law "was a once in a lifetime opportunity
to make a real difference."
The Dean campaign has garnered headlines his energetic kiddie
corps staff (not seen in such numbers since the Clean Gene
brigades working for Eugene McCarthy in 1968) and for its
Internet savvy, particularly with its fundraising wizardry
and organizing sophistication (more than 500,000 Dean supporters
are Internet linked). His unconventional campaign (it's the
2004 equivalent of Bill Clinton and his saxophone) is a reflection
of his pragmatic little political "engine that could"
ethic - the organizational and logistical might of the campaign
has dwarfed all his rivals and the key is more than phone
banks and mailing lists and canvassing. The campaign's meet
up and house meeting innovations have created a personal connection
that, at least in theory, affirms Dean's "we're all in
this together" message.
Dorie Clark, New Hampshire communications director for Dean,
told me that wide-scale meetings came about because they realized
that "normal canvassing wasn't very effective."
The result since the summer stretch of the campaign as Dean's
stature grew was an explosion of informal but focused meetings
to spread the Dean gospel. Clark says by the end of November,
the campaign will have run about 1,000 meetings - and plans
to run 100 a week until primary day. This translates not only
in more votes but potentially thousands of more new voters,
another Dean campaign focus. Dean's campaign is hot right
now because, out of desperation and inspiration, its far tastier
than the processed, focus group mulch served up by the D.C.
professional political class.
The night before Dean spoke in Rochester, I sat in on a
house meeting in nearby Durham, a mostly liberal, comfortably
middle-class town where the University of New Hampshire is
located. The 90-minute meeting was hosted by Robin Cross,
a mother of two teenage daughters, and who had never been
so personally politically involved before. Cross called about
40 of her friends and acquaintances and 14 showed up to swap
stories about how their kids are doing in school and to learn
more about Dean. Most of the attendees are politically sophisticated
and their questions cover a wide range of issues - education,
environment, tort reform, gun control and whether Dean is
too much of a "political novice" to take on Bush.
But the dominant mood is summed up by Cross herself who told
me "we gotta rid of Bush."
The Dean campaign man on the spot was James Moore, 26, a
New Hampshire native who a few months earlier quit his job
as a grass roots organizer at Greenpeace in Washington, D.C.
"For two years I saw how things are done in D.C. I'd
had enough of Bush and what he was doing especially his systematic
unraveling of 30-year of environmental laws," Moore told
me. "I decided I had to do something. I packed everything
I had in the car and moved up here." Moore joined the
campaign as an area coordinator, working 80 to 100 hours a
week, and it's been an enlightening baptism as he's never
worked for a political candidate before. He has been leading
as many as 11 house meetings a week, he says, educating scores
of engaged voters. "They range from students to housewives
to everyone. What's interesting is how many have never been
this involved before, Some have never registered or voted
before. And we are seeing this throughout the state."
Moore said he studied the candidates before approaching
the Dean campaign. He's obviously a Dean booster but not sycophant.
It's clear that Dean isn't as liberal as Moore (he's amused
of the portrayal of Dean as anything but a fiscally-conservative
moderate) but "What interested me is his overall inclusive
message and his solid stands on the issues. I was also impressed
by how much he got done in Vermont." He's "happy"
about Dean's environmental record and health care initiatives;
merely "comfortable" with the gun control issue
which Dean believes should be mostly handled by the states.
But Moore has no doubt that Dean not only has the right stuff
to beat Bush but has the long-term vision to lead the country
out of the D.C. partisan abyss. Dean and his campaign think
and plan big. "We plan to win New Hampshire twice - now
and in November." Moore tells the house meeting gathering.
The Dean campaign believes that when (not if) Dean wins the
White House he will also bring in Democratic majorities in
Congress because of the potential millions of converts who
will join the crusade.
Now that he's ascended to frontrunner status and is starting
to acquire establishment endorsements from unions to D.C.
pols, Dean has entered the expectations labyrinth. And his
rivals and media critics have unsheathed the long knives to
chop him down to size. Dean is unlikely to curry press favor
with nicknames and charm as W. Bush did to considerable effect
in 2000 and so far, the center-left pundit chorus aren't in
a courting mood. Joe Klein's sourpuss lashing of Dean in the
Nov. 17 edition of Time reflects general punditburo
discomfort with Dean's quasi-populist surge. After observing
one of the Dean campaign's meet-up sessions, Klein writes
about the therapy indulgence atmosphere (perhaps, but three
years of watching the Bush reality show might prompt the need
for mass therapy), castigates Dean for his excessive criticism
of Bush and running a campaign hot on style but devoid of
ideas - in short, a calculating Professor Harold Hill out
to con the local rubes. (On the other hand, for a dose of
cognitive dissonance, check out the neobolshevik scolds, especially
William Safire or the Op/Ed pages of the Wall Street Journal,
have faintly sung his praises, because they feel Dean is the
perfect fall guy for Bush in the general election.)
His rivals are equally energetic and eclectic in taking
Dean to task. In addition to the daily establishment sniping
that Dean is unelectable and will sail the Dems into a McGovern-like
electoral disaster, John Kerry blasts him for being a foreign
policy virgin, Wesley Clark takes him to task for being insensitive
to small businessmen and Joe Lieberman has taken him to task
for Dean's recent Confederate flag blunder and rejecting campaign
spending limits (even John Kerry's wife Theresa threw a jab
at Dean for being "appealing" candidate but little
more). And then there is Dick Gephardt (whom Dean supported
when Gephardt ran for prez in 1988) whose campaign runs an
anti-Dean web site (www.deanfacts.com)
which spotlights what Gephardt insists are Dean flip-flops
on core Democrat issues such as Medicare and NAFTA, to name
a few (Dean says his thinking has evolved).
Dean jokes about the "buckshot in my butt" fired
by his critics but he's a hardly a victim. For his part, Dean
ran an ad attacking Gephardt for his Iraq war vote (a photo
of Gephardt standing behind Bush at the bill signing was particularly
touching). Gephardt has fired back with his own attack salvo.
This early display of negative firepower is yet another reflection
of how intense this primary is becoming.
There's plenty more buckshot to come.
Michael McCord is an award-winning reporter and writer
living in New Hampshire. The return of Berkeley Breathed's
Opus the Penguin to the comic pages has temporarily restored
his faith in a relatively sane universe.
of Michael McCord's Tales from the Primary Trail:
Wesley Clark to the Rescue?
Unbearable Lightness of Being John Kerry