Decision 2004: ABD vs. ABBA

Howard Dean’s powerful momentum has made him the person to beat for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004. He has shocked many of the pundits who had dismissed him, infuriated the other candidates (particularly with his attacks on their Washington insider status), and generally freaked out the party establishment. As a result Dean has become "The Target,” attacked from all directions with verbal body blows, karate chops, kicks to the groin and an occasional wild haymaker.

Most of the attacks on Dean have come from what can be called the Anybody But Dean (ABD) party led by other Democratic candidates, notably Joseph Lieberman, Al Sharpton, Richard Gephardt and John Kerry. In their increasingly desperate effort to derail the Dean candidacy, Dean’s opponents have escalated their attacks to a level that could hand the Bush campaign powerful tools for victory in 2004, should Dean be the nominee.

In fact, as the New York Times reported on December 26, the Bush team believes that Dr. Dean’s rivals are “doing a great job” for the current President's re-election campaign. Republican strategists say that if Dean is nominated, they will portray him as "reckless, angry and pessimistic," while keeping the President's message upbeat. “They plan to use the Democrats' words to attack Dean in their ads, meanwhile keeping Bush personally above the fray."

Dr. Dean is the frontrunner because he has been able to establish himself as the candidate of change, and it has made him a lightning rod. How seriously the relentless attacks will weaken him has become a big question for the Democrats and independents who are more concerned about dumping Bush than about backing or blocking any individual Democrat. This is the ABBA Party – as in Anyone But Bush Again.

As Robert Greenwald, producer and director of the acclaimed documentary “Uncovered; The Whole Truth About the Iraq War,” put it, "I do worry that the Democrats are not thinking about the big picture and November in their aggressive efforts to really nail Dean." Some worry that the oft-repeated charges among Democrats that Dean is too liberal, too impulsive, or otherwise hard to elect will create a defeatist, self-fulfilling prophecy. Democratic candidates seem to have joined a number of pundits in working to establish a caricatured image of Dean that might be hard to overcome in November.

Leading the anti-Dean charge is Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who is 25 percent behind in the polls in neighboring New Hampshire’s primary. Kerry is positioning himself as the Dean alternative through constant attacks on Dean’s character. In a major speech Dec. 27, according to Patrick Healy in the Boston Globe, Kerry borrowed from the Robert Frost poem, "The Road Not Taken," arguing that "two roads are diverging" for Democrats in the presidential race – "a road of confusion and contradiction" marked by "simple answers and the slip of the tongue," pursued by Dean, and "the road of strength and principle," by Kerry.

"New Hampshire's decision comes down to this: A choice between a candidate who, for all his anger, is on the wrong track economically and has no experience on the major security issues of the day, or a steady and consistent hand with experience in growing our economy and balancing the budget, and making America more secure," Kerry said. "It's a choice between anger and answers."

The other members of the ABD party are attacking Dean regularly as well. Al Sharpton has attacked Dean on race issues, Lieberman (along with Kerry) on Dean’s more pragmatic stance on Israel, Gephardt on Dean’s ability to beat Bush and his inexperience in foreign policy. Underlying all the attacks, though, are zingers aimed at character issues.

Dean is clearly unhappy with the situation, criticizing his party's national chairman, Terry McAuliffe, for not intervening to tone down the debate. Jodie Wilgoren of the New York Times reported that, while on the road in Iowa, Dean said, "If we had strong leadership in the Democratic Party, they would be calling those other candidates and saying, 'Hey look, somebody's going to have to win here.' Dean also suggested he didn’t control the legions of young people who have been brought into the fold as part of his campaign, should he not get the nomination, providing further fodder for his opponents."

Immediately the four ABD leaders pounced on Dean, launching a new round. John Kerry’s comments were typical: "Listening to Howard Dean's comments yesterday makes me wonder if he's worried about our party's chances for victory or his own personal political future," the senator said. "No one who really cares about the future of the Democratic Party would make such a divisive and threatening statement."

With the democratic establishment letting the Dean pummeling go forward, it may take a grassroots effort to halt the bloodbath. While the “regime change movement” led by, the Sierra Club, union-funded groups and others, is loath to take the side of any candidate, they may be left with a badly wounded candidate when they are ready to swing into action. The message to the other candidates can be: focus your attacks on Bush, and offer a positive vision of how you will be an alternative to the current administration. Coincidentally, this actually seems to be what the voters want, at least the Democratic primary voters.

The vociferous and seemingly coordinated nature of the attacks on Dean, and the absence of any intervention by the Democratic establishment, are raising questions as to what exactly is at play behind the scenes. Is it, as one top national union organizer suggested, that some of the Democratic candidates would rather see a second term for Bush than Howard Dean in the White House.

In any case, it is hard to even keep up with all the slings and arrows Democrats have been firing at Dean. Sharpton, for example, made the hard-to-grasp charge that former Vice President Al Gore’s endorsement of Dean smacked of "bossism." He also said that “Dean is anti-black" and strongly implied that Jesse Jackson, Jr. is an “Uncle Tom.” Black Commentary reported that at the time, Sharpton “was in meltdown, furious that Jesse Jackson Jr. had endorsed Howard Dean and that many black Democrats were supporting other candidates.”

Anti-Dean attacks further escalated in mid-December, when former Congressman Edward Feighan and others close to Richard Gephardt put television ads on the air in South Carolina and New Hampshire that included these lines: “Americans want a President who can face the dangers ahead, but Howard Dean has no military or foreign policy experience. And Howard Dean cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy. It is time for the Democrats to think about that – and think about it now.” Of course, George Bush had no foreign policy experience as Governor of Texas either, and a lot of Democrats question whether he has learned much. But that wasn't part of the ad's message.

Much of the national media appears to be echoing the messages of the attacking Democrats. Yes, a couple of months ago he was on the covers of both Time and Newsweek, in the same week. But the media’s message has always coupled the success of Dean’s insurgent, Internet-fueled campaign with the limits and dangers of his candidacy. “Hot-headed and potentially unelectable” was and continues to be the media mantra. As least as often as he is identified as a medical doctor and former governor of Vermont, he is described as loose-lipped, irritable and a potential McGovern-style disaster in the making for the Democratic Party.

Perhaps the most revealing moment of the ABD Party mentality and the media’s collusion came in a televised debate in New Hampshire in November. In an unconscionable moment of media bias, Ted Koppel asked who among the candidates thought Dean was electable. Instead of emphasizing Bush's weaknesses and how all the Democrats were electable, offering a vastly better choice, the Democratic candidates sat on their hands, allowing Koppel the cheap laugh when, reportedly, Dean alone raised his.

The Democratic candidates, the media and perhaps the Bush people seem to be ignoring what seems inarguable: Dean has been the candidate of change from the onset, and their attacks add emphasis to that status. He staked out clear positions where the voters were most angry: the rush to war, a tin-eared imperial presidency, a faltering economy, corrupt cronyism and an overall feeling of powerlessness. He stood up for something. In a climate of powerful models of voter frustration – most notably Arnold Schwarzenegger's election as governor of California – Dean captured the mantle of change, and he has just tightened his grip since then.

Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi suggests that the broadsides against Dean do not appear to be sticking so far. Trippi reminded the Times that the attacks on Dean supposedly planned by the Bush team may backfire. He notes that they haven't worked so well for Dean's Democratic rivals: “Where have we gone? From zero to 31 percent in the latest ABC poll.” Dean himself said in late December that the attacks won't help in the long run, since Bush will eventually use the criticisms in his ads. "But in the short run I think it makes them (the other candidates) look smaller."

In addition, much of the Democratic rhetoric ignores a fundamental principle of communications, the media frame. When you attack who your opponent is and what he says, particularly without presenting a clear vision of your own, you simply reinforce that opponent's message by repeating his words and ideas. This effect clearly seems to be part of what has catapulted Dean into such a strong position as his campaign enters 2004.

Meanwhile, Dean remains the candidate asking the toughest questions and garnering the most media attention as a result. Over the past two weeks, his frankness has been re-characterized by his opponents, and by the media, as so-called "loose lips."

For example, he recently drew fire for stating that “the capture of Saddam hasn’t made us safer.” In retrospect his comments appear prescient; the Christmas time Orange Alert still in effect did not signal any reduction in the administration's fears of terrorists. American soldiers continue to die in Iraq – four on Christmas Day alone – while terrorist bombs killed many in Israel, Afghanistan and, particularly, in Pakistan, in the past week. A recent national poll showed that 79 percent of Americans do not believe the invasion and occupation of Iraq have made us safer.

However, the potential truth of Dean's observation did not inhibit Joe Lieberman from spitting out this slander immediately after Hussein's capture: "If Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power today, not in prison, and the world would be a more dangerous place." Similarly, Dean recently pointed out that Israel would have to remove a large number of settlements in the Occupied Territories to achieve peace, prompting a Democratic outcry against what was described as an anti-Israeli position. The fact that it mirrored official policy during the Clinton administration was conveniently forgotten.

The Democratic establishment attacked him even more fiercely in September, when he had the temerity to call on the United States to take a more "even-handed role" as the chief mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His comments prompted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and dozens of other top Congressional Democrats to write an open letter criticizing Dean for his statements. As Stephen Zunes wrote in a recent AlterNet article, "To have virtually the entire Democratic House leadership openly criticize a policy statement made by their own frontrunner appears unprecedented."

Dean also wondered aloud during a radio interview that there may be some truth to rumors that the Bush administration knew more than they have admitted about 9/11 before it occurred, noting the administration’s secrecy about the investigation of the attacks invariably leads to such speculation. Senator Kerry pounced on this comment as part of his withering attack on Dean in a key speech in New Hampshire. "When he spreads unfounded rumors about the administration having prior warnings of Sept. 11 and then passes it off because someone had posted it on the Internet, it leaves Americans questioning judgment and sense of responsibility," Kerry said. Yet as noted, the Dean comments, from the Diane Rehm show, were clearly above board:

Howard Dean: "Yes, there is a report which the president is suppressing evidence for, which is a thorough investigation of 9-11."
Diane Rehm: "Why do you think he is suppressing that report?
Howard Dean: "I don't know. There are many theories about it. The most interesting theory that I've heard so far – which is nothing more than a theory, it can't be proved – is that he was warned ahead of time by the Saudis. Now who knows what the real situation is? But the trouble is, by suppressing that kind of information, you lead to those kind of theories, whether they have any truth to them or not, and eventually, they get repeated as fact. So I think the president is taking a great risk by suppressing the key information that needs to go to the Kean Commission."
Each of these "loose lips” comments may reveal Dean as smarter and more adroit than either the pundits or his opponents are noticing. In each instance, he continues to stake out ground as the candidate willing to ask the tough decisions, state the difficult truths, and make the necessary changes. These comments also help to solidify his party and primary base. Many liberal and progressive Democrats have been wary of Dean, who, contrary to the media image, is more centrist than liberal on a range of issues. These Kucinich Democrats, along with some Kerry supporters, have moved over to Dean, as they see the party establishment trying hard to derail the guy that many see as willing to tackle Bush head on, hence provide the clear alternative.

The impact the orchestrated attacks will have on Dean will play out over time. They seem to strengthen Dean in the Democratic primaries, but the general election is something else altogether, and Dean understands this. As he told New York Times, "I have to broaden the message. I know that and I was starting to do it. But you can’t do it if everyday Joe Lieberman is calling you incompetent and John Kerry is whining about something else. There is not much sense in broadening the message, if I’m not the nominee."

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.


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