What Happened to Howard Dean?

Howard Dean campaigns

hide captionHoward Dean speaks during a campaign stop in Royal Oak, Mich., Feb. 5, 2004.

Reuters Limited

Last Friday, on NPR's Day to Day, substitute host Madeleine Brand asked if Howard Dean's campaign might be revived with a victory on Feb. 17 in Wisconsin. I told her that if she was a betting woman she'd bet against it.

By the time I got back to my desk the phone was ringing. A woman from Vermont was calling to say I was killing off her candidate by creating the impression that his campaign is a sinking ship.

She said the media has constantly attacked Dean. He is a "genuine person," without the pretense of most candidates, she said. He speaks his mind and he might not have the "veneer," of some "plastic candidates," but he is an honest man, a problem solver who was a terrific governor of Vermont.

I was puzzled by her claim that the news media was sinking her candidate. Is it the way the media played the governor's speech after his Iowa defeat — in which he ranted and hollered out the name of every state he planned to win? The caller said there was a problem with the sound system in Iowa and the doctor's voice was distorted. Dean is just an intense person, she argued. Yes, he is intense and overly combative, I said. No, she said, he is just "feisty."

Oh! So that's the explanation.

I did agree with her about the speech. Dean did not want his supporters to think he was giving up after one defeat and he pumped up the decibels as if he was the coach of a team that was losing at half time. It was quite a show. But the media overplayed it by running it again and again and giving it the memorable title of the "I Have A Scream" speech. Howard Stern's radio show set it the soundtrack from "Rocky," and late-night comedians made it into evidence that Dean was out of control.

But the problem with her analysis, I suggested, is that Dean's high-pitched speech came after his defeat in Iowa. What happened to all those Hawkeye voters who saw him up close? Dean not only lost to Sen. John Kerry but also finished behind Sen. John Edwards. What happened to the new voters that Dean promised to bring into the voting booth? What happened to the "perfect storm" of Dean supporters who created the largest on-the-ground campaign organization the Iowa caucuses ever saw? What happened to the impact of his well-funded and well-organized union support? What happened to the record amount of money Dean raised?

And what about all of the magazine cover stories and political reporters, including me, who predicted a Dean victory in Iowa?

The caller said the attacks from Rep. Dick Gephardt had hurt Dean in Iowa. Gephardt ran ads that questioned Dean's record of support for Medicare and Social Security. Dean responded with ads attacking Gephardt for his stand on the Iraq war. Joe Trippi, who was still Dean's campaign manager at the time, has called the exchange of negative ads a "murder-suicide" by Gephardt.

But beyond that the caller did not have an answer as to what happened to Dean's campaign. She does think it is a loss for the nation that a hard-working, caring politician — her view of the former governor — could not win the Democrats' nomination for president. We said a polite good-bye.

After speaking with her I thought history will show that Dean was pushed into the lead by the same factors that have since pushed him to the edge of defeat — unless he mounts a startling comeback. (He has said he must win the Wisconsin primary to continue.)

First, Dean's combative attitude toward President Bush played well with people angry at the results of the 2000 election as well as those upset over the decision to go to war in Iraq. That base of voters saw in Dean a man willing to take on the president. But that willingness to take on the president did not translate into voter trust that Dean had a good grasp on protecting the nation from terrorism. Exit polls show voters want an experienced candidate and someone who cares about them. Those desires have vaulted Kerry and Edwards to the top.

And Dean's muscular attacks on the president and his fellow Democrats who voted to go to war did not translate into confidence that Dean listens to people who have a different point of view. His tongue-lashing of the Iowa man who asked him to tone down his attacks on Bush became a staple of conservative talk radio. The capture of Saddam Hussein in December also blunted the war issue. It was not among the top tier of concerns of voters in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina.

Dean is a genuine, smart person. He is not a Washington insider. And he has a good record as governor of Vermont. He turned out to be a terrible candidate.

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