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How Beltway Democrats Sank Dean for America

by JOSHUA FRANK

 

Evidently, Howard Dean’s movement scared the money-hungry Democrats right out of their thousand-dollar suits. McAuliffe, Reed, Kerry, Gephardt, and the Clintons were terrified of what he could do to the party they worked so hard to build during the 1990s. It didn’t matter that Dean was ideologically aligned with these centrist Democrats — his grassroots cash was a genuine threat to party brass.

As DLC leaders Reed and From commented in another memo on Kerry’s and John Edwards’ successful campaigns in Iowa, “Two months ago, when former Gov. Howard Dean’s campaign appeared to be running away with the Iowa caucuses, Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards spoke to the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner and made the same prophetic point: Democrats need to offer answers, not just anger.”

“Now the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party has spoken: Iowa was a landslide victory for hope over [Howard Dean] anger. The word ‘stunning’ hardly does service to the performance of Kerry and Edwards in Iowa. Up against all of Howard Dean’s endorsements and organization, Kerry and Edwards each won more delegate shares (the arcane measurement used to judge success in Iowa) than Dean and Rep. Dick Gephardt combined. Kerry’s victory and Edwards’ strong second weren’t just stirring comebacks for those two campaigns. They represent an inspiring comeback for the Democratic Party.

“Iowa was also a triumph for a Democrat who wasn’t on the ballot: the original Comeback Kid, Bill Clinton,” they boasted. “The Dean campaign has done everything it can to run away from Clintonism, even calling the historic progress under Clinton nothing more than ‘damage control.’ By contrast, Kerry and Edwards followed the Clinton playbook … While Dean defined himself as everything Bush is not, Kerry and Edwards set their own course for the country. They supported the war against Saddam Hussein and … they also pledged muscular internationalism to unite the world against terror, a return to fiscal discipline and Clintonomics, bold plans to expand opportunity for the forgotten middle class.

“Indeed, the Iowa results represent a vindication for the Blair Democrats who supported the war in Iraq. Even Democrats with serious doubts about Iraq want America to succeed there, and want a nominee who can pass the test as Commander-in-Chief.”

Al Gore and later Bill Bradley grasped their chances of taking on the Clinton-controlled DLC to which they once belonged, hoping to turn power over to the new iconic liberalism represented by the pro-Dean movement. To reassert the centrality of the party line, David Jones was brought on, albeit at a comfortable distance from the Kerry and Gephardt camps, to crush Dean’s rebellious candidacy.

“Americans for Jobs, Healthcare and Progressive Values ran at least three ads in December against then-Democratic presidential front-runner Dean in early-voting states,” the Associated Press reported on February 10, 2004.

“The group spent $15,000 on an ad aired in South Carolina and New Hampshire that showed a picture of bin Laden and said Dean lacked the experience needed to take on terrorists.”

Some in the Dean campaign saw what was happening. The AP quoted his spokesman, Jay Carson, as characterizing Jones’ anti-Dean commercials as “some of the nastiest smear ads” in the history of the Democratic Party.

“The Washington establishment put this group together just to try to stop Gov. Dean,” claimed Carson. Jones pompously bragged, “We did more with $600,000 than Howard Dean did with $41 million.”

Jones, no doubt, was right.

Media Killed the Political Star

Instead of organizing on the street and going door-to-door in Iowa like they should have done, Dean’s campaign manager Joe Trippi and team attempted to play ball with the big boys. The weapon of choice for Trippi and his opposition was none other than the mass media. Trippi couldn’t handle the TV ads. But David Jones could. Unfortunately, as Team Dean quickly discovered, focusing the majority of the campaign’s energy on Internet activity had clear limitations. Given that the Internet had not previously been used to raise cash and garner political support, Dean’s popularity was difficult to gauge. In fact, because the Internet was such an innovative source for mobilizing enthusiasts, Dean’s message did not reach many traditional voters in Iowa. Trippi, noticing the gap late in the game, decided to speak to these folks through their television sets. But they weren’t tuning in.

Once Trippi derailed Dean’s ability to propagate his campaign platform, defeat was a near-certainty. Jones’ PR machine was already in high gear, putting together their anti-Dean barrage. But the first negative ad that aired in Iowa was an advertisement developed by Trippi’s firm, which depicted Dean berating Gephardt for his stance on the Iraq war.

“October 2002. Dick Gephardt agrees to coauthor the Iraq war resolution, giving George Bush the authority to go to war,” the background voice in the TV ad murmured. “A week later, with Gephardt’s support, it passes Congress. Then last month, Dick Gephardt votes to spend $87 billion more on Iraq. Howard Dean has a different view.” Howard Dean then chimes in, “I opposed the war in Iraq, and I’m against spending another $87 billion there. I’m Howard Dean, and I approve this message because our party and our country need new leadership.”

Gephardt countered Dean with his own flagrant advertising assault. “Howard Dean is attacking Dick Gephardt for a position Dean took himself,” the announcer says before the ad cuts to a question asked of Dean during the September 15, 2003 primary debate:

“Is that an up or down, yes or no, on the $87 billion per se?”

Dean: “On the $87 billion for Iraq?”

Questioner: “Yes.”

Dean: “We have no choice, but it has to be financed by getting rid of all the president’s tax cuts.”

Gephardt then pops on the screen, announcing, “I’m Dick Gephardt, and I approve this message because leadership is about making tough decisions and sticking with them.”

The rest of the Iowa pack, particularly Kerry and Edwards, avoided the brutal attacks against one another, focusing their energy instead on the Bush administration and allowing the Jones crew and Gephardt to make Dean the target of Democratic attacks. This degree of infighting so early in the race was unprecedented in the Democratic Party. And since these ads aired in Iowa, no Democrat cast other candidates in a negative light in any TV spot. Why would they? Dean and Gephardt came in a distant third and forth, as the smooth-talking DLC-backed Kerry-Edwards duo moved to number one and two respectively, proving the effectiveness of negative advertising.

Around the same time a libertarian group called Club for Growth ran a TV ad where two actors pretending to be an older Iowa couple said that Dean “should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading . . . body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont. Where it belongs.”

Following his more-than-embarrassing third place finish in Iowa, Dean, hoping to rally his base, gave his now infamous screaming speech that became the media pinnacle for his downfall.

Eric Salzman, reporting for CBS News on January 26, 2004, wrote:

“The media is having a great time with Howard Dean’s ‘concession’ speech in Iowa … Like a horrific car accident on the side of the road, the clip of Dean listing the states with early primaries, and ending with a gleeful ‘yalp,’ is hard not to watch, even if there is nothing to gain from seeing it … What you might not know, because it doesn’t play 30 times a day on the cable news channels, is what was happening in the rest of the room. You don’t see the visual, and you don’t hear the audio. The television crews recording the event plug into an audio source picking up Dean’s microphone, not the sound of the room. The cameras focus in to a tight shot of the candidate, not the rest of the room. What you are not hearing is a room with thousands of people screaming and cheering. What you are not seeing are hundreds upon hundreds of American flags waving.

“What you are not hearing are members of the audience shouting out state names urging Dean to list more. What you are not seeing is the way Dean’s supporters were lifted out of their slump by the speech.”

But never mind what really happened. The media was having a hay-day with Dean’s tantrum. The unelectability of the governor, cast as a maniacal demon, was played out every half-hour on the cable news networks. And fellow Democrats loved the negative takes on the scream. “You’ve heard of mad cow disease? This was mad candidate disease,” the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Garry South, a senior adviser to Senator Joe Lieberman, as saying. “I sat there in total disbelief. It was beyond anything I’d ever seen,” South said. “If I were Trippi and (Dean pollster Paul) Maslin, I would have been having a heart attack.” It was truly the first thick nail in Dean’ s campaign coffin.

Although the DLC was astonished at Dean’s ranting yelp, they were nonetheless pleased. Everything Jones and his ilk wanted was coming true. Dean was self-destructing. And he was nudged to that brink by his own party’s elite establishment.

New Hampshire came next. Dean was already on the downward slide after Iowa, but his gang had hoped they could climb back into the saddle and ride off with a victory in the New England state.

Everybody in the Dean campaign knew New Hampshire was critical for Dean. Most didn’t know that in fact Trippi was planning on leaving the campaign regardless of whether Dean won or lost. He had nothing more to offer. If Dean didn’t come in second or a close third, he would be finished for good. But many in the Dean camp still felt confident. The Governor remained steady in the polls, although his numbers declined substantially after the Iowa ordeal. His troops had been in the state for months, attempting to organize and get out the Dean message. Certainly his frightening speech didn’t help. And by now, Dean’s wife Judith had been dragged before the TV cameras, on display for the media doctors to dissect. This spectacle was clearly in poor taste, and her uncomfortable demeanor did not bode well for Dean, who was working hard to get past his Iowa outrage and show the country he was just a normal fella, who just happened to hate GW Bush. So he pulled on a wool sweater and stomped to work in snowy New Hampshire.

None of these maneuvers mattered, however. Dean lost by double digits, an embarrassing finish indeed.

Marcus Teesey, a Dean volunteer in New Hampshire wrote of his experiences and his views on Dean’s collapse in the state: “The Dean machine was a brigade-sized organization that rapidly and suddenly — and in my opinion unexpectedly — acquired the enthusiastic support of ten divisions’ worth of new people through Meetup. Not all, but a definite majority, of these people had no political experience … People whose campaign experience was limited to stuffing envelopes and holding signs got important staff jobs in New Hampshire. The enthusiasm was there and so was the intelligence, but the core competence wasn’t and isn’t universal … If Dean had had a year to build his New Hampshire campaign with the resources available at the time of the primary, things would have been much smoother. Communications errors wouldn’t have occurred. Chains of command would have been clearer. Many thousands of man-hours were wasted in New Hampshire due to these things, which went some way towards nullifying the numerical advantage Dean’s organization held over Kerry’s. The rest of the way was because Kerry’s field grunts were, as a group, far more experienced than Dean’s.”

There’s an important lesson in Teesey’s tale: Winning the presidency, like any large political victory, takes a great deal of time and planning, a long-term project that Dean compressed into a fatally short-term campaign. A progressive — or even a liberal like Dean — who wants to be president should be laying the groundwork for 10 or more years in order to get it right.

Dean went on to lose all of the primaries before dropping out after his defeat in Wisconsin. Trippi resigned after New Hampshire, inspiring Dean to bring on Washington insider and Bill Clinton’s close friend Roy Neel as his replacement. It was sign of what was to come of Dean the Democrat who would fall back into the party line, leaving his followers to traverse the Kerry trail instead. He did pick up delegates by winning his home state of Vermont well after he quit, but by then it was far too late to matter.

Dean hadn’t made it to half of the states he had screamed out while on the mic following Iowa. To put it mildly, many Deaniacs were disenfranchised, as they struggled to understand what had gone awry.

Was it poor organizing? The media? Trippi? Dean’s persona? They needed to point fingers at those they blamed for his demise.

Some correctly accused Beltway Democrats, who from the inception of Dean’s campaign wanted to derail his hopes. The DC scoundrels were not expecting such massive anti-war support for the lackluster Vermonter. Surely DNC chief McAuliffe was never in touch with the resentment that was brewing on the ground leading up to Bush’s war on the Iraqi people. Trying to funnel that anger back to Washington was no easy task for these anti-warriors, but many saw Dean as the only way to effectively challenge the party that had overwhelmingly gone along with Bush’s preposterous attack and subsequent occupation. These perceptive activists gathered through the virtual world and planned their own assault on Bush. Surely they had the energy, but they were not prepared for the harassment their candidate would receive from party bigwigs.

This is what leads us to the larger story: The difficulties of taking on the corporate entrenched Democrats who believe the best way to win elections is to continue moving rightward. Although Dean was a centrist and conservative in almost every regard, he still operated on the political margins while running for president. He didn’t raise his funds in the normal corporate circles. He challenged the system and was supported by Americans far more progressive than he was.

Many of Dean’s patrons believed him to be progressive, a sort of Ralph Nader of the Democratic Party. But Dean, as you have read, was no Nader, or even Dennis Kucinich for that matter. He was, and continues to be, a New Democrat ideologically. Perhaps Dean was correct when he said he didn’t know what to expect. He had no idea Washington Democrats would not welcome him with open arms. He thought he was one of them. However, they hated Dean, but despised his followers even more.

In fact, that is why it is so appalling that Dean began campaigning for Kerry after his defeat. Roy Neel had been successful. He, like other conventional Democrats, didn’t want Dean’s activists to stray from the party, even though the Democrats would never embrace their beliefs. They have and always will take progressives and even most liberal-minded voters for granted. That’s been the part the Democrats — long the graveyard of radical social change — have played for the past 40 years.

On Friday June 9, 2004, Dean stepped into the ring with independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader. The old consumer advocate hardly flinched as Dean repeated half a dozen times that we must do everything in our power (that is, legal power) to rid the country of the Bush plague. We are in a state of “emergency,” he boldly announced.

Obviously reincarnated after his own presidential death, Dean went so far as to claim that John Kerry had “progressive credentials.” That is clearly something you would have never heard quiver off the lips of Dean the candidate, who himself lacked credentials of the progressive stripe. But Dean was now the defender of the party that did its best to slaughter him during the primaries. He had become the poster boy for a lousy Democratic ticket, which likely set him up for future within the party establishment.

Looking back on Dean’s record, it was no surprise that he defended Kerry’s candidacy. “Many Democrats also admire Ralph Nader’s achievements as I do,” Dean said shortly after Nader announced his candidacy. “But if they truly want George Bush out of the White House, they won’t vote for Ralph Nader in November.”

Unfortunately, Dean forgot to mention that Kerry and the Democrats never planned on bringing real transformation even if Kerry had won, which we’ll get to later.

The Dean saga shows just how far right we are politically in the US. Many have theories as to how this gross Democratic mindset unfolded, but the fact is, this trend is here to stay, and working within the party — though noble in some regards — cannot produce genuine shifts in ideological values, especially at the national level. Regrettably, even when there are signs that outsider challenges will alter the status quo of Washington politics, they all die a not-so-pleasant death.

This is an excerpt from JOSHUA FRANK’s new book Left Out!.

JOSHUA FRANK is the author of the forthcoming book, Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, to be published by Common Courage Press. You can pre-order a copy at discounted rate at www.BrickBurner.org. Josh can be reached at: Joshua@BrickBurner.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, co-edited with Jeffrey St. Clair and published by AK Press. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank

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