Running for president is a body-and-soul-challenging job. Campaigns begin years before the election, and candidates are caught in an endless race around the country, repeating the same phrases and self-congratulatory arguments as they fight to out-fundraise and out-spend one another. It was therefore no surprise that, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses in January 2004, Howard Dean looked a bit squeezed out on the campaign trail.
After more than a decade as Vermont Governor he was running for president as a feisty outsider, challenging the Bush administration about the conduct of the Iraq War while riding an Internet-driven wave of anti-incumbent anger.
In spite of Vermont’s often prickly relationship with the national government, other politicians from the Green Mountains had contemplated running after the unexpected presidential terms of Chester Arthur and Calvin Coolidge. In 1881 Arthur became president after James Garfield was shot at a Washington railway station by an unstable officer-seeker. Coolidge served for five years after Warren Harding dropped dead in San Francisco on August 2, 1923, in the midst of a goodwill tour.
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Howard Dean had fewer internal conflicts. The son of a Republican Wall Street executive, he grew up in affluent surroundings, mostly in East Hampton, and attended an exclusive boarding school. At Yale he opposed the Vietnam War but wasn’t a protester, then drifted for a while before briefly becoming a stockbroker. That didn’t satisfy a nagging desire to help people, however, so he enrolled at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, a school in the Bronx famous for its community-based approach.
Once he completed med school, the next challenge was finding a place for his residency. Vermont was not his first choice, but its size offered a way to combine practicing medicine with political engagement. His first significant move was to help launch the Citizens’ Waterfront Group, which fought for a bike path along the shore on Lake Champlain and locked horns with the administration of Bernie Sanders, an Independent who had unseated a Democratic mayor.
The bike path campaign took years but ultimately succeeded beyond his dreams. In the meantime, Dean learned the ropes from established Vermont politicians. “They shaped me into a pragmatic Democrat,” he wrote in a political autobiography. “I was friendly with the younger, more liberal Democrats because they were my age, but I didn’t vote with them. I didn’t relate to their political sensibilities.”
By 1982 he was chairing the Chittenden County Democratic Committee and running for the state House of Representatives. “The District was in Burlington, and it was the most liberal, working-class district in the state,” he wrote. “There was a very strong Progressive Party in the ward and no Republican Party whatsoever. So, interestingly, I ended up running against a candidate to my left in my first election.”
In the legislature Dean joined a group of young, moderate Democrats and Republicans known as the “blue shirts,” focused on education issues, and became minority leader in only two years. By 1986 he was ready to run statewide. Looking at the available options – lieutenant governor or a race for Congress against moderate Republican Jim Jeffords – he chose the easier path. Fortunately for Dean, the current lieutenant governor, Peter Smith, wanted to run for governor.
In 1990, Dean passed on the opportunity to run for governor himself, but ended up in office anyway due to the sudden death of Richard Snelling. Reviewing his accomplishments over the next decade, Dean has stressed balancing the budget, building a surplus, land conservation, health care for most children under 18, and an early intervention program that reduced childhood abuse. On some issues he resisted demands from the left, however, and was generally known as a centrist.
His response to calls for same-sex marriage was indicative. On December 10, 1999 the State Supreme Court ruled in Baker v. Vermont, that gay couples had a right to the same benefits provided to straight couples and told the legislature to deal with appropriate implementation. Sensing political peril, Dean initially expressed some discomfort with the idea of gay marriage. But the legislature moved forward and made Vermont the first state to legalize civil unions. Dean signed the bill, but without a public ceremony, apparently in the hope of cooling down the atmosphere. It didn’t happen. Gay rights activists felt cheated, and an anti-gay backlash almost cost him re-election in 2000.
In retrospect, Dean asserts that he was committed to marriage equality for all. “That’s why I knew I had to work for civil unions,” he wrote in 2003, in the midst of his presidential race. “I never viewed the bill as a gay rights issue. I signed it out of a commitment to human rights, and because every single American has the same right to equality and justice under the law that I have.” Whatever the reasons, he benefited in the long run. Wealthy gay supporters, especially in the Fire Island beach community, were early and generous contributors to his campaign.
By the time civil unions became Vermont law in 2000, Dean was already considering a presidential race. But he passed on it that year, and waited until the end of his last term as governor two year later to begin building an organization. He also made sure Al Gore wasn’t running again.
Early on, Dean tapped into an Internet-based strategy, meetups, and used the concept to organize supporters across the country. “We were seeing a phenomenon where the effort was owned and directed by the people who supported it,” he explained. He was also discovering a new way to raise money. By June 30, 2003, he had raised almost $8 million, beating his rivals and advancing to the top candidate tier. A week before that, he officially announced in front of a standing room only crowd on Church Street.
“On that stunning early summer day,” he recalled, “I stood in front of more than thirty thousand Americans who had gathered in Burlington and, via the Internet, across the country…In many ways, that speech on June 23 was the culmination of what I had learned in a year of listening to the American people.”
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By August Dean was the hottest political story in the country, the wild card of the upcoming presidential race. In cover features published simultaneously on August 11, both Time and Newsweek declared him the candidate to watch. Time was circumspect, titling its cover “The Dean Factor” and inside headlining his “cool passion” as an “unlikely spokesman for the anti-Bush left.” Newsweek was more provocative. Dean pointed angrily at an unseen audience as the cover headline asked, “Howard Dean: Destiny or Disaster?” Inside, Jonathan Alter’s coverage telegraphed the fear among establishment Democrats that “if Dean does win the nomination, his liberal supporters will put their Birkenstocks on the gas pedal and drive the party right over the cliff, a la George McGovern in 1972.”
Back in Vermont, many residents were perplexed. This was a new Howard Dean, no longer the moderate who often frustrated progressives. Now he was, as Alter described him, “the fire-breathing neopopulist” calling on liberals to “Take your country back.”
In Dean’s book, released a few months later, he chided fellow Democrats for “actually empowering the radical right” by being afraid to “stand up to the Republicans and their radical agenda.” He defined his cause as “the Great American Restoration – the restoration of our ideals, of our communities, and of our nation’s traditional role as a beacon of hope in the world.” Dean had become governor by accident, but was running for president with gusto and purpose.
Six months later, on the weekend before the Iowa caucuses, he was still pushing as hard, and pulling out the stops by spending Sunday morning with President Carter in Georgia. Then he flew back to caucus-land for a rare appearance with his wife. He had focused on Iowa early, risking $300,000 to air the first TV ads. Everything looked set for an early victory.
But groups like the Club for Growth had something else in mind. In early 2004, the Club came up with a strategy designed to turn what was starting to look like a Frank Capra movie, Dr. Dean Goes to Washington, into a horror-fantasy. In an ad released by the conservative anti-tax group shortly before the crucial caucuses, two actors, playing an elderly couple, were asked to describe the threat looming over the country.
Responding directly to the camera, the “husband” said, “Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times reading…” Then the “wife” jumped in with, “body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont where it belongs.”
It was strong stuff, a perverse yet brilliant blend of dark comedy and cultural hate speech, so effective that the Club didn’t have to pay much for airtime. The news networks were more than willing to provide free play. As CNN’s Judy Woodruff explained on January 9, “This is so catchy, we love to run it over and over again.”
Club for Growth President Steve Moore readily admitted that the goal was to re-brand Dean as a tax-hiking elitist. The theme would have been developed more if he had become the nominee, and was cleverly recycled in 2008 to fit Obama. Columnist Austin Bay outlined the script in a mid-January 2004 essay, arguing that Dean was the candidate of “that cadre of angry American leftists struggling with a nasty case of '60s nostalgia and their failed elitist ideology.” In this version of the race, narcissist baby boom radicals were using “pop socialism” to extend “government coercion.”
“These ‘progressives’ wish America were France,” Bay wrote. “Whether tenured in the Ivies, ensconced in editorial positions or pulling in trial lawyer and Hollywood bucks, these late middle-age Volvo drivers long for L'Age D'Or, when smoking dope and calling US soldiers babykillers made you ‘hip’." Calling the idea that the US war on Iraq might have been a mistake another sign of “tie-dyed dogma,” he concluded that the Dean campaign was dangerous “brain-zapped foolishness.”
Dean endured similar assaults throughout his campaign, and not just from other candidates and isolated columnists. In addition to a barrage of negative campaign ads directed against the frontrunner, a majority of nightly network newscast evaluations of Dean were negative, while three-quarters of the coverage given to the other candidates was favorable, according to research conducted by the Center for Media and Public Affairs. In 2003, only 49 percent of all on-air evaluations of Dean were positive, while the rest of the democratic field collectively received 78 percent favorable.
By January 19, 2004, most of the candidates were ready to say and do anything to survive. A few hours before the caucuses, John Kerry wondered aloud whether John Edwards was “out of diapers” when he (Kerry) came back from Vietnam. He had to apologize, since Edwards was 16 at the time. In frigid weather, steelworkers were showing painted chests for Dick Gephardt. Wesley Clark, not in the caucus but gaining ground nationally at the time, was hugging George McGovern in New Hampshire. Edwards and Dennis Kucinich meanwhile struck a deal to pool delegates. Treating caucus-goers like tradable commodity, they agreed that the candidate with the best early showing in a caucus would get the other’s support to meet the 15 percent viability threshold for actual delegates.
In a weird counterpoint, the Bush administration was pushing for caucuses in Iraq. As the US tried to get the UN back into the process of reconstructing the devastated country, thousands of angry Shiites were taking to the streets. Their demand was free elections, but their leaders admitted that the goal was an Islamic state. The fear was that a public vote, being demanded by the Shiite majority, would lead to a less-than-friendly government. The subtext was that caucuses made it easier to manipulate the outcome.
CNN analysts issued a forecast for Iowa hours before anyone voted. On Crossfire, Democratic insiders Paul Begala and James Carville, as well as conservative Robert Novak, predicted that Kerry’s late surge would overwhelm Dean. Edwards was given third place and Gephardt was consigned to oblivion. Dean sounded over-confident, but there was uncertainty among his active supporters, nicknamed the Deaniacs. Volunteers in at least three cities were handing out flyers that charged Kerry wasn’t electable, his wife was too rich, and Ralph Nader wouldn’t step aside if he was the nominee. It came across as desperate.
Days earlier, Dean Campaign Director Joe Trippi had claimed to have 40,000 definite supporters lined up to attend the caucuses, virtually guaranteeing first place. (He was off by half.) Over the weekend, volunteers flooded the state, buzzing around in orange hats. It would be a test of whether “Generation Dean” was for real. For the candidate, it was a reality check on a dream that dated back years.
Waiting for the numbers, Tom Brokaw noted that politics today is about cultural values, and that Dean’s message had become confused – he was an “outsider” with more key endorsements than anyone else, an angry guy whose wife didn’t want much to do with his campaign. In short, an uncertain image had undermined his message and, more important, his perceived electability. According to a focus group led by Frank Luntz, Dean’s support had tanked, largely because people found him testy, even mean – partially based on a last minute shouting match with a critic that made Iowa TV news.
Kerry and Edwards were staging an upset. But Dean had also squandered his lead, and too many questions were being raised about his electability, key factors apparently favoring Kerry and Edwards. Early opposition to the Iraq war didn’t turn out to be a strong enough argument; both anti-war and young Iowans found Kerry as attractive as the former Vermont governor.
Nevertheless, becoming the frontrunner had already allowed Dean to launch and fund a national campaign. Thus, losing in Iowa didn’t necessarily have to spell doom. But it did allow the media to question his claims to be leading a broad-based movement, and set the stage for Kerry to beat him in New Hampshire. Even spending millions more on TV ads wouldn’t be enough to overcome another month like the last.
And then, when he could have been hopeful but humble, Howard Dean went on national TV to thank his supporters and unexpectedly turned into a cartoon character, a snarling Hulk who rasped out a fierce determination to beat any rivals, shouting out their home states with a frightening sneer. Columnist Howard Fineman was generous when he called it “a little nutty.” CNN’s senior analyst Bill Schneider concluded that “people looked at Howard Dean, and they didn’t see a President.”
Boston’s Mike Barnacle was blunt: “That guy’s not going to the White House.”
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Bush strategist Karl Rove and the religious Right wanted the 2004 presidential race to be about values – things like patriotism, optimism and heterosexual marriage. Actually, they hoped to convince enough people to swallow the administration line, ignore uncomfortable facts, and embrace an evangelically-infused 1950s vision of the country. But the election ended up being about much more, including security, deception, gay marriage, decency, and the all-important presidential variable known as “likeability.”
Howard Dean’s incandescent sprint became a warning: Be prepared for the unexpected. By winning the so-called “invisible primary” – the fundraising and organization-building race that happens before any votes are cast – he looked like a “frontrunner” quite early, probably too soon. In the end his support turned out to be demographically thin and easy to undermine. In early 2004 he went from “hot” to “not” in less than a month.
Like the outbursts of Barack Obama’s former minister Jeremiah Wright in 2008, Dean’s so-called “rant” after the Iowa caucuses – instantly infamous as the “I have a scream” speech – was the hot clip on TV and the Internet for weeks, the focus of endless late night jokes. Within five days, the “scream heard round the world” was played almost 700 times on US television networks. As Dean’s poll numbers tanked, critics concluded that he simply didn’t have the “temperament” to be president. The emphasis shifted from which candidate had the most compelling message to which would be more “electable.” Dean was being winnowed out.
Struggling to turn disaster into opportunity, the embattled candidate spent the next days blanketing the networks with interviews, appearing with his wife, joking about his performance on late night TV, even distributing video tapes of a warm and fuzzy interview with Diane Sawyer to more than 100,000 New Hampshire residents. It began to work. Some people realized that the criticisms of Dean were exaggerated.
But Kerry seized the moment to step above the fray, stressing his “gravitas” and showcasing manly skills by playing Hockey and piloting a helicopter. Like a contender on the reality show Survivor, he was showcasing his value to the tribe. The following Tuesday, when New Hampshire primary votes were tallied, the strategy paid off. Kerry repeated his Iowa performance, pulling in 39 percent. Dean made a partial comeback with a convincing second place finish. His speech that night was more sedate, yet still defiant.
The immediate casualties were Wesley Clark, who skipped Iowa to spend weeks alone in New Hampshire – only to come in a weak third, and Joe Lieberman, stuck in fifth with less than 10 percent after virtually living in the state for a month and bragging about “Joe-mentum.” Neither immediately gave up but both were on the critical list.
On February 18, after coming in third in Wisconsin, Dean finally acknowledged that his campaign had "come to an end." Yet he urged people to continue voting for him. The idea was that Dean delegates could still influence the party platform. On March 2 he won the Vermont primary, but it was over.
After the 2004 election Dean became chairman of the Democratic National Committee, creating a “50 State Strategy” designed to make Democrat congressional candidates competitive in normally conservative states. The approach bore fruit in the 2006 midterms; Democrats took back the House and picked up seats in the Senate from normally Republican states. In 2008 Barack Obama made Dean’s strategy the backbone of his campaign.
On April 7, 2009, over a veto from Dean’s gubernatorial successor Jim Douglas, the Vermont legislature became the first in the country to allow marriage for same-sex couples. An UCLU study concluded that the decision would boost the state’s economy by more than $30 million over three years, and that, in turn, would generate $3.3 million more in fees and sales taxes and create 700 new jobs.
After Dean dropped out of the presidential race, some analysts said he had been assassinated by a hostile media. It was partly true. But they couldn’t have done it if Dean hadn’t supplied some bullets. Throughout the campaign he insisted on shooting from the hip and often fell into gaffes. Another notion, that his campaign had fundamentally changed the Democratic Party, took much for granted. It was about as convincing as the assumption that Ralph Nader’s presence in the race would broaden public discourse. Nader was refused entry into major debates, rarely appeared on television, and didn’t make it onto the ballot in many states.
After 9/111, many people argued that “everything” had changed. Not so. Some things continued as usual, including not-so-subtle manipulation of public opinion and the primary election process.