Not since “Dewey Defeats Truman” has the press been so surprised (and so wrong) about a political race as last week in Iowa and this week in New Hampshire. For months and months the liberal press had been declaring Dean to be the Next Big Thing. He was their darling. Time, Newsweek, and National Journal all ran cover stories on him. The New York Times Magazine and countless newspapers wrote in-depth analyses of why Dean could not lose. He was called “invincible,” and his nomination “inevitable.” Yet as it happens, he was a total flop among real Democrats, coming in a distant third in the Iowa caucuses, and a disappointing second in New Hampshire. What gives?
Anyone can make mistakes, of course, and Howard Dean’s chances are hardly dead yet (just nearly so). But it’s still worth asking why the liberal media got this one so spectacularly wrong. They had convinced all of us that Kerry was a washout and Edwards a bumpkin. I was certainly convinced. Why was the media so quick to crown Dean king?
Sure, the former Vermont governor was a money-attracting machine, and that counts for something in politics. But so was Senator Phil Graham in the 1996 Republican primaries with his “ready cash”–and look what happened to him. It now seems pretty clear that Dean’s early enthronement was based less on his actual campaign prowess than certain prejudices of the mainstream liberal press.
Dean was two things that the liberal press, in particular, loved. First, he was radically antiwar. In Dean the Left had the opportunity to relive the 1960s’ protests against the Vietnam War. They could throw up the barricades, march in protest, and denounce the American Imperial Power–at least vicariously. They could also, like Dean, vent their anger. And Dean gave voice to the Left’s more wild claims: He wondered whether Bush knew about September 11 before it happened; he made accusations of a neoconservative cabal manipulating the president; and he doubted whether the capture of Saddam Hussein was in fact a good thing.
Second, Dean was the candidate who was thought to be a transformative political figure, some kind of charismatic leader or “change agent.” He had discovered a way to raise huge sums of money through the Internet. It was claimed he would bring into the process millions and millions of new young voters. The Democratic party would never be the same again: Dean would kind of break things up all over again, 1960s style. Always on his lips were the words, “I want to change America.”
Dean’s antiwar message no doubt appealed to older journalists who had lived through those heady days, as well as perhaps a younger generation who believed they had been born too late and had missed out on Something Really Big. Dean made things sound exciting again. Most of all Dean provided liberal
journalists with the frisson of protest politics.
As for us conservatives, we were all too quick to believe what we read about Dean in the mainstream media. We did so either in eager anticipation of another Nixon-like landslide against McGovern in 1972. Or we did so in a mood of near religious dread for the fate of our country. The man was obviously ever so slightly unhinged. Was it really possible that so many of our fellow citizens, even liberal ones, could vote for this guy? We were pretty quick to think so.
But the fact is that protest politics only succeed under extraordinary circumstances. In retrospect, Gore’s endorsement of Dean should have been the tip-off that Dean might not make it all the way. Gore has less political acumen than just about any national politician in recent memory. That he decided before a single primary vote had been cast to back Dean should have raised more than a few questions about just how good Dean’s chances really were. The Democratic party is still not quite the equivalent of the French postmodern Left, and nor is it ready for a Jacque Chirac.
For Dean to win (even in the Democratic primaries) the war in Iraq would have to look a whole lot more like the Vietnam War than it presently does. Many liberal Democrats think the war is a terrible blunder, and an immoral and unjust use of American power. But Iraq is not exactly Vietnam. We have lost about 500 soldiers in Iraq so far. Each and every one of these losses is a terrible personal tragedy for the families. This is all too painfully obvious. However, it was the staggering loss of some 50,000 American lives that helped make the antiwar candidacy of McGovern a possibility. Also, today, unlike then, there was no precipitating attack on American soil, no September 11.
Many Democratic voters object to the war in Iraq, but few see it as Dean does: as the only thing worth talking about. They’re in favor of reforms, but few seem to want the radical change prescribed by the mad doctor from Vermont. That’s what the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries demonstrated.
–Adam Wolfson is editor of The Public Interest.