The Comeback of Logicians

Have you ever asked an engineer to pick a fabric swatch? How about asking an artist for help with a tax form? It doesn't happen. The world is too neatly divided between those who thrive in the creative flow and those who depend on order and logic. And so it has been with the Democratic presidential campaigns so far.

Howard Dean emerged from the pack in 2003 by mastering the art of politics, with an emotional appeal that was all about connecting and inspiring and generating enthusiasm. Discipline and coordination were, well, subordinate.

The campaign took off on the Internet, the ultimate in decentralized authority. The strategy was to let a thousand flowers bloom. Deaniacs everywhere were encouraged to design their own Web pages and message boards, their own blogs and micro campaigns in support of the former Vermont governor. And thousands did.

The Dean campaign culled energy and ideas from the cyber fan clubs but never told them what to say or do or think. No one needed permission to participate — that's the message from campaign manager Joe Trippi. The reciprocal was also true; Dean was free to be himself — just as authentic, and at times, just as undisciplined as his supporters.

It was a strategy that empowered a grassroots movement. Click by click, dollar by dollar, they created a campaign that defied conventional wisdom.

The political establishment didn't see the Dean phenomenon coming because their problem is just the opposite of his. Beltway insiders have a very systematic process for evaluating candidates, and compared to contenders with distinguished resumes and carefully nuanced positions, Dean just didn't make the grade. He had no national experience, no name recognition, no friends in high places and no immediately obvious means of financial support. And besides, he's a hot-head, not a level head.

Dean went from improbable contender to frontrunner while most of the political establishment was in denial. He raised more money than his rivals, climbed to the top of the national polls and started bagging just the kind of endorsements (Al Gore, Bill Bradley) no one thought he could get.

But once Dean was installed as the favorite, his face on the cover of national news magazines, a new phase was entered. The frontrunner must be scrubbed and scrutinized and held to higher standards. It's a political rite of passage.

What's happening in the national media this month and among the caucus-goers and voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, could be called the comeback of logicians. This is a phase that favors linear planning.

Discipline counts now more than ever. Candidates, campaigns and even volunteers need to be on message, all the time. The research needs to be systematic and filed alphabetically. Everyone must be poised for synchronized, rapid response.

Sticking to a script in this way is paint-by-numbers politics — not something that comes naturally to Dean or his campaign. In politics as in life, the ability to switch from instinctual flow to organized check list is a challenge. But that's what it takes to win a national election.

As Democrats debate their choices, they might ask which candidate best embodies both flow and logic. Because come November, they take on the real organizational challenge. When it comes to staying on task and on point, no one does it better than George W. Bush.

Beth Donovan is an elections editor for NPR News. This is her third presidential election with NPR.

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