Dark horse running

By - Aug 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Greg Sampson

The end of June was all about Howard Dean. On Sunday, June 22, Dean appeared on Meet the Press, where Tim Russert attacked just about everything about him, from his stance on the war in Iraq to his health care policies to his “evolved” position on the death penalty. The following day he was back in Burlington, Vermont to officially declare his candidacy for the Presidency. The tone of his speech was visionary and thoughtful, surprisingly devoid of much of the confrontational rhetoric for which he had made a name for himself in the previous months. Finally, by the end of the week the Dean campaign announced that it had raised $7.5 million in the second quarter, the most by any candidate, the lion’s share coming through donations on the campaign Web site.

Suddenly the press was talking about Dean, turning him overnight from a long shot, dark horse candidate to an insurgent contender who was pushing significant political issues and forcing his competitors to pay attention.

Politics at its’ most unpredictable.

It was politics at its’ most unpredictable. Beyond the money the campaign raised, there was real energy surrounding Dean himself. While many of his vocal supporters were liberal Democratic activists angry about tax cuts, the pre-emptive war in Iraq, and the Bush administration generally, much of Dean’s buzz was fueled by unaffiliated citizens.

They are attracted to him in part because he represented a departure from the detached, politics-as-usual formula that has come to represent national campaigns in the past quarter century. In Dean they see a candidate unafraid to not only go after the policies of the Bush administration, but also the inability of Democrats to challenge those policies or come up with a competing vision of how government should work.

Young, white and wired: profile of a Deanophile.

One of the most compelling characteristics of the Dean campaign has less to do with the candidate himself than with who is watching him. Dean has been successful at courting the unaffiliated, many of them young and on the Internet. They represent a class of people with financial power and an established (not to mention expansive) community base; a heretofore largely untapped “market” for politicians. In the past, they’ve not been big voters. That may be changing.

These people go online and talk about Dean. Through mailing lists, weblogs, or via community Web sites, people are contributing to a discussion about Dean, and to grassroots, Web-based activism. In Dean’s case, this has proven significantly more effective than traditional marketing and campaigning techniques for getting his word out.

I have to confess, I fit the profile of a Dean supporter almost to a tee. My professional and personal life is tied to the Web. I care about politics in this country, but feel disenfranchised by the detached, insular behavior common amongst politicians, who court special interests and narrow constituencies at the expense of the will of the society they ostensibly serve. I am more likely to go with a candidate I disagree with, but whom I feel is honest and talks straight, and who actually appears to care about what I think.

So, notwithstanding any political differences I had with Dean, I was excited to see his campaign take off as it did. And to see how Web communities played a key role in his successes made the whole experience doubly intriguing. It was grassroots organizing for the Information Age. But at some point, I realized that something was holding me back. I was reluctant to put all my force behind Dean as a candidate. It had nothing to do with his policies, or his potential as a leader; it was about the nature of the dialog we were having. If people really want to see him win, their discussion of Dean needs more depth.

That discussion, I realized, should start back in Vermont.

Dean back at home.

To call Howard Dean a centrist Democrat doesn’t quite capture his political essence. His beliefs create a strange pattern. He is pro-health care, anti-gun control, pro-environment and believes in limited use of the death penalty. He was relentless about balancing the budget in Vermont, often at the expense of funding for social programs. Politically independent, many of his breaks with the rest of the Democratic party developed as a result of the realities of governing a rural state equally as conservative and libertarian as new-age and liberal.

Dean’s personality also set him apart as a leader. In many ways he is everything a typical politician is not: pugnacious, confrontational, and more likely to rhetorically beat his opponents into submission than persuade them to agree with him. In Vermont he has had a perpetually contentious relationship with the press, which has, at times, been taken to the courts. This aspect of his character has come through in the campaign quite clearly, and it could be his perceived intolerant nature that is attracting so many angry activists and disenfranchised independents.

Dean’s behavior in the national spotlight (and specifically, his aggressive reactions to the press and his opponents) may turn out to be a liability for him. Elections are, after all, popularity contests, and voters tend to be turned off by a candidate if they sense they’ll spend four years being scolded and lectured to. But then, his suffer-no-fools attitude and his intolerance for empty rhetoric make him attractive. If Dean can capitalize on the latter qualities, he should continue to be a strong challenger to his opponents, and perhaps have just as much success nationally as he has as Governor.

But can he win?

Overall, Howard Dean’s viability as a candidate is uncertain. When he gave his official declaration on that hot day in downtown Burlington, Vermont, I almost felt like he was unstoppable. But there are many flaws in his style, both as a leader and as a presidential candidate, which could wreck his candidacy bid. But from here, at least, he stands a chance of actually winning the nomination. That would say a lot, not only for his straight talking ways, but also for the grassroots Web-based activism that helped boost him there. Whether or not that happens, it is important the conversations continue.

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