Wisconsin Farewell: A Dean Retrospective

Howard Dean announced Wednesday that he would be ending his presidential campaign. The announcement capped what has been a brutal month for the Vermonter who would be president. It seems hard to remember those days before the January 19 Iowa caucuses, when the Dean train was full of steam and on a track set for the White House.

Having never recovered from his severe Midwestern derailment, Dean told his supporters in early February that Wisconsin would be the end unless he won the state's primaries. He wavered on that promise, but ultimately held to it after ranking a distant third in the polls and facing the departure of top aides. Thus, now is a good time to take stock of the campaign that was once bound for glory.

Too many in the media have been overjoyed to dance on the grave of the Dean insurgency, attributing the candidate's failure in hindsight to poor policy positions and inherent weaknesses as a campaigner. However, the cynics don't offer a lot of insight into the campaign's dramatic reversal of fortune. And they fail to give Dean his due -- to appreciate the candidate's contributions to reviving a moribund Party and creating one of the most compelling Democratic primaries in decades.

So why did the Dean campaign fall apart? And what lessons can we learn?

First off, money matters. I was in Iowa in January, and it was notable how markedly local perspectives differed from those elsewhere in the country. Iowans actually took seriously candidates like Gephardt and Edwards, who on the coasts were considered irrelevant. Why did Iowans take them seriously? Because the candidates spent serious time -- and even more serious money -- campaigning in the state. While on the national scene Dean looked unbeatable, the race was much tighter in places where the airtime had been purchased and the campaign literature mailed.

The second lesson is that negative campaigning works -- as a destructive force, at least. John Edwards points to his hopeful, upbeat message as the key to his surprise success in Iowa. It's true that it kept him clear of the mudslinging. But the fact that frontrunners Gephardt and Dean each spent considerable fortunes heckling each other down no doubt had much to do their failures at the polls. Again, the impact of the attack ads, or at least the omnipresence of them, was much more evident in Iowa than in places where the negative glossies were not showing up in the mail every day.

The dual power of money and mud will be important to remember in the coming months. Although President Bush has had a couple of bad weeks, a tarnished image is nothing that $200 million can't fix. And something tells me that Karl Rove's hatchet men won't be listening to Edwards' advice about taking the moral high ground when they go up against John Kerry.

Dean supporters generally cite unfair coverage of "The Scream" dooming their candidate in New Hampshire and beyond. But Kerry was sure to get a big boost from his Iowa victory regardless, and Dean to suffer from his poor third-place showing. Later revelations that the governor had squandered almost all the plunder from his war chest was enough to dash hopes for a true national strategy. Complaints about press coverage harping on the "angry" Dean may be legitimate, but managing reporters is part and parcel of making the tricky move from challenger to frontrunner. A Dean campaign that lived by national media momentum was all too ready to die by it.

Then there is the pundits' favorite explanation for the governor's downfall: "electability." Howard Dean himself has rightly pointed out that this is a fickle concept. January polls showed him as by far the most likely Democrat to beat Bush, and electability was often cited in his favor. Meanwhile, as the Kerry campaign languished throughout most of 2003, the Senator was widely considered too aloof, too Northeastern, and too much of a Washington insider to beat Bush.

Besides, this discussion ignores the manner in which Dean has transformed the meaning of "electability." Historian and journalist Rick Perlstein perceptively writes in the Village Voice that "thanks to Dean, the definition has changed from the last time it was so ubiquitously heard: In the 1990s, when the word was enough to give any dyed-in-the-wool liberal a shudder, it served as a stand-in for 'politically skilled but ideologically timid.' Now, it means both 'politically skilled' and 'eager to kick George Walker Bush's ass.'"

That is why we owe Howard Dean our gratitude. The last time we had a Democrat running for President, he was too polite even to protest as the Bush campaign sabotaged the Florida recall process. As recently as one year ago, when massive February 15 protests against the White House's war effort shook the globe, the Democrats had no mainstream figure (Dennis Kucinich notwithstanding) who was able or willing to harness the widespread disgust with Bush extremism, foreign and domestic.

Dean changed that. More than any other individual, he helped to make the primaries exactly the sort of populist contest that so many of us progressives called for throughout years of wandering in the centrist, Democratic Leadership Council-seeded wilderness. Dean campaigned as a representative of the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," a line stolen from the late Paul Wellstone. With the exception of Joe Lieberman, who was booed off the stage, the other candidates followed suit. As a result, we've been treated to the most vibrant, engaging campaign that most people can remember.

In early 2003, I echoed conventional wisdom by praising Dean as a promising candidate for the presidency of Ben & Jerry's, but doubting that the dark horse governor had a prayer in a national contest. Conventional wisdom was wrong. Dean fashioned a new model for grassroots fundraising. While other candidates' claims that they were the best suited to attract and motivate voters remained largely speculative, Dean mobilized an impressive base of supporters.

After the fact of his decline, commentators have called Dean insincere and ill-informed. I can't agree. Beyond watching the debates and televised appearances, I saw Dean stump twice in person, and it worked. He was smart and articulate, riffing through the long litany of industrialized countries that have beat the U.S. in providing universal health care. Or explaining in January: "I've taken abuse all week from my competitors for saying it, but I'll say it again. The capture of Saddam has not made America safer."

I say amen to that. Dean stuck to his guns, and the ongoing quagmire faced by U.S. troops in Iraq is proving him right.

Yet Dean was no radical, and that was part of his strength. He could get progressive audiences fired up despite championing balanced state budgets and a health care plan that left many working families paying hundreds of dollars per month for coverage. To the chagrin of Kucinich, Dean was able to create grassroots excitement in a way that the true progressive in the campaign never could. In fact, by pushing the whole field in a populist direction, he eliminated the need for the type of "outside" challenge that Kucinich represented.

Of course, the tenor of the campaigns will shift back toward the center in the general elections. But the Democratic Party will not be the same as before.

Former Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi has suggested in his new blog that the Internet-driven enthusiasm that fueled the Dean campaign might continue beyond the nomination fight as a grassroots effort to promote "Change for America." It's a nice thought, but it is unlikely that online faithful would mobilize for campaigning beyond the scope of ousting the current President. For better and for worse, social movement attention right now in this country is unrepentantly focused on the call to "Beat Bush." The Dean campaign rose on that sentiment. And, as his supporters turn to helping Kerry get elected, his machine will dismantle itself.

Dean is finished as a candidate. But he has carried the Democrats further than I ever might have imagined. For that, I wish him a fond farewell. Hope he'll be back soon.

Mark Engler, a writer based in New York, is a commentator for Foreign Policy in Focus. Research assistance for this article provided by Jason Rowe.

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