Politics & Policy

The Hot, Hot, Hot Candidate

The anger, popularity, and prospects of Howard Dean.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is the cover story in the December 22, 2003, issue of National Review.

–Howard Dean is unveiling his early-childhood agenda before a dozen workers in the child-development center at the Des Moines Area Community College. The workers–mostly very sensible-looking older women–sit at tables facing Dean, sporting bright yellow “Child Advocate” stickers and earnestly taking notes. With actor/activist Rob Reiner at his side, Dean touts his “Welcome Baby” and “Dr. Dynasaur” early-childhood initiatives from Vermont, and explains his $110 billion plan for federal funding of similar programs. His audience is respectful, but not over-enthused. It’s not until the question-and-answer period that Dean will close the deal, in a fashion utterly typical of his candidacy.

One of the workers raises his hand and says they’ve heard similar sentiments about the importance of early childhood from other politicians in the past, including Bill Clinton. What makes Dean different? Reiner begins to pipe up, but Dean slyly hushes him by patting his hand. Dean is eager to answer this question himself.

“Look what we’ve done in Vermont,” he says. “Every time I put out the budget, I said to legislators, ‘You’re gonna support health insurance for kids, you’re gonna support early childhood. If you touch one hair on the head of any of those programs, you’ll never see another road grader in your district again.’” The audience laughs and applauds at the sheer SOB-ness of it. Dean adds, “My reputation for toughness and bluntness sometimes was justified. I was very tough with the legislature.” When someone raises the prospect of Dean’s having to work with a Republican Congress to pass his plans, he explains his idea of “working with”: “If they don’t do any of these things, then the next election in 2006 is gonna be a referendum on the behavior of Congress. It worked very well for Harry Truman.”

Dean has won over this small crowd, not composed of partisan firebrands, with his promise to give ‘em hell. In Primary Colors, the Bill Clinton character performs in a similar setting, wowing an adult-literacy class with a heart-wrenching, fabricated story about his illiterate uncle designed to show Clinton’s deep sympathy with the struggles of his audience. Clinton bonded by emoting; Dean bonds by bristling. If Clinton pledged to feel our pain, Dean promises to inflict some–on those alleged malefactors who have seized control of the country so they can neglect children, the environment, and workers, and trample democracy.

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