The Assassination of Howard Dean

Election '04

Two months ago, Howard Dean was the man to beat for the Democratic nomination. Then his campaign fell over a cliff, limping in as a distant second, third and even fourth, in the primaries. On Wednesday Dean officially ended his bid for the White House, telling supporters, "I am no longer actively purusing the presidency."

What happened? How could Dean's insurgent candidacy, which had energized and excited voters in every state, come to such a screeching halt?

The pundits claim Dean's "rage" undid him, that voters took a "second look," etc. etc. Nonsense really. The answer is much simpler. Howard Dean was assassinated in broad daylight. Unlike Kennedy's "grassy knoll," Dean's killers are not hiding -- it was the Democratic Party itself, and more specifically the Democratic Leadership Council, that successfully went after, and sabotaged his candidacy.

Remember the 1980s, when the Democratic Party found itself facing unassailable Ronald Reagan, "It's morning in America" slogans and an era of go-go optimism? In three successive elections, the Democrats were felled by the memory of Jimmy Carter. Dems were seen as soft on the Soviets, mullahs, crime and welfare mothers. Although Carter's gentle ways secured the historic Camp David Egypt-Israel accord, most Americans remembered the Iranian hostages, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the infamous "malaise" speech.

In 1988, Dukakis went down to Bush I because Republicans successfully painted him with the "L" word -- "too liberal". Faced with a 12-year losing streak, a new generation of party activists took control of the party. Led by Bill Clinton and others, they formed the DLC -- a powerful group with the explicit intention of moving the Democrats away from the left to the center, from where they would beat the Republicans. Bill Clinton was the DLC's first candidate, and his eight-year run solidified its hold on the party. Clinton's Commerce Secretary Ron Brown was another DLC heavyweight, and until he was killed in a plane crash, instrumental in moving the party away from "liberal" positions.

Nothing succeeds like success. Buoyed by Clinton's popularity, a balanced budget and an era of prosperity, the DLC became the standard-bearer for the Democrats' political identity. That is until 2000, when the DLC's next king-apparent, Al Gore, took a stumble in the Florida panhandle and was then hog-tied by the Supreme Court. When the dust had settled and King George was safely inside the palace, a recount revealed that Gore had actually won, but the damage was done. The DLC's critics now came out of hiding -- attacking the party for being too centrist, too cautious and too much like "Republican-lite." If you try to ape the right-wing of the nation, voters may decide to go for the "real thing"!

Howard Dean emerged within this specific context. From day one, he positioned himself as a reformer of the Democratic party -- the man who would bring the party back to its liberal roots. Dean hit headlines by being the anti-war candidate. But even within that position, most of his criticism was of his Democratic cohorts, for cravenly accepting the Iraq war. Dean took pleasure in flaying candidates like Kerry for voting in support of the war resolution. The party took notice when Dean got up on stage and announced, "I'm Howard Dean, and I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party!"

Another part of the Dean story, and threat to the party establishment, was his style and appeal. Howard Dean has often been labeled the "prophet of rage." It's certainly true that he was an angry man -- angry at Bush, the war, the budget deficit, the mushrooming unemployment cloud, at all things that had gone badly wrong in three short years. This anger hit a chord with the popular imagination; dissatisfaction with Bush was high and Dean was the perfect protest candidate.

Another core part of Dean's appeal was his overwhelming support among young people. In 2000, one of the lowest voter turnouts was among young people. If you were under 24, you tuned out and stayed home in November. By contrast, the bulk of Howard Dean's support was among the youth of America. Energized by a strategy focused on Internet campaigning, "Generation Dean" or "Dean 2.0" spread across college campuses and gave a youthful aura to the man from Vermont.

Of course, the DLC did not take kindly to this direct challenge. The crucial dynamic in America today is that big companies, political parties and media are powerful businesses -- and they will do anything to crush new threats. The DLC reacted with fury to the Dean candidacy, going all out to torpedo his momentum. Although Democratic nominees soon piled on the "bash-Dean" bandwagon, earlier attacks were carried out by DLC operatives. There was even the smell of scandal when two top Democratic candidates were found sharing information about Dean in an attempt to slow him down.

This is where Dean lost a crucial ally -- the mainstream media also joined in on the anti-Dean feeding frenzy. In his early days, he had flayed big media for caving in to George Bush on Iraq, and media giants never forgave him for this. In the same week, Time and Newsweek ran "Who is the Real Howard Dean?" stories. One cover showed a face covered in dark shadows, another showed an incomplete jigsaw puzzle! Semioticians take note -- bad guys in westerns always have their faces obscured in shadows!

In the end, Dean threatened a troika of powerful institutions. He was a threat to the political parties (because he attacked Democrats' centrist drift), to media (because he criticized their cowardly reporting) and to big business (because he would roll back chummy tax-benefits for corporations). All three institutions responded with venom and destroyed Dean's candidacy. In 1968, a bullet ended Robert Kennedy's anti-establishment candidacy. In 2004, the methods used were more subtle, but just as effective.

America is riven by a strange schizophrenia. It is an entrepreneurial nation that prizes individuality and celebrates non-conformists. Especially in the area of business, mavericks like Ted Turner and George Soros have been able to define their own space. But in the area of politics, the establishment guards the doors zealously -- outsiders have no chance. In 1976 an unknown peanut farmer from Georgia came out of nowhere to capture the White House. Jimmy Carter was the anti-Nixon, his mantra was, "Trust me, I will never lie to you!" But insurgency candidates like Carter don't appear too often. People like Bernie Sanders have to run on Socialist tickets. Other voters are deserting the Democrats for the Green Party and Working Families Party, scoring small, incremental victories in local council elections across the nation.

Coming back to the 2004 elections, barring any surprises, John Kerry will get the nomination. If GIs keep dying in Iraq, if job losses continue, if popular anger over right-wing policies grow, Kerry has a shot. I'm part of the ABBA (Anyone But Bush Again) brigade. If Bush goes down to Kerry, I'll be the first to celebrate. But the Democratic Party is still waiting for a candidate who will help rediscover its soul.

Naeem Mohaiemen is the editor of

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