Politics & Policy

The Muzzling of Howard Dean

Advisers rein in the Democratic frontrunner.

Howard Dean walks swiftly down a hallway in New Hampshire looking like he is late for an unpleasant dental appointment. Without breaking his stride, he performs gaffe surgery. Reporters ask him if he regrets past comments about the absurdity of the Iowa caucuses. He deftly creates the impression that the Iowa panderfest is now a noble cause.

Howard Dean’s campaign had, up until now, that freewheeling, everybody-get-together, try-to-love-one-another-right-now spirit. The blogosphere loved the candidate who seemed like a real person, speaking his own mind. He happened to be right about the Iowa caucuses during his interview with the Canadian public television show The Editors in 2000. But, of course, even an outside-the-Beltway politician can’t admit this fact when he’s trying to lure caucus-goers into his corner on a frigid January night.

Veto power is the ultimate presidential tool. Joe Trippi and Dean’s “senior advisers” now seem to have achieved veto power over Howard Dean, as the candidate admitted when he stopped himself from answering a press question about taxes last week. This means that Dean’s campaign has entered a new phase. His campaign manager can limit Dean’s commentary at will. The cone of silence, or at least scripted talking points, is descending.

Dean is no longer faring well in the media primary, where journalists can make or break a candidate. Now, real primary voters are finally paying attention and his daily message matters more than ever.

I’ve seen versions of this dilemma in my own campaigns. When I worked with Ward Connerly on the California race-preference initiative back in ‘96, he would do nearly every interview in sight, as long as he could sneak in a few hours for sleeping. In that case we were competing with scare-tactic commercials featuring Hollywood types like Ellen DeGeneres insisting women would lose maternity leave and most other employment gains if the state were required to drop racial preferences in hiring, contracting, and education. Our endless accessibility helped, and the initiative passed big time.

With Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, we had hundreds of journalists panting for an interview during his 2002 afterschool-initiative campaign. We picked our outlets carefully, but even when we granted several interviews in one day, we had a movie-trained spokesman who knew how to stay on message. We also had millions of dollars for commercials, which is very helpful in a market the size of California. Even though we flew around the state doing media appearances, Schwarzenegger wouldn’t hang out with reporters for stream-of-consciousness color pieces. It was a disciplined approach that foreshadowed the carefully controlled access of his winning gubernatorial campaign.

Dean, who prided himself on the McCainiac straight-talk model when he was a long shot, is becoming cautious, even censored. His managers are probably right. He can’t keep shooting off his mouth. His verbal missteps (Confederate flag, crazy 9/11 theories, downplaying Saddam’s capture, no prejudging of Osama, fumbling a reference to the Bible) are getting him in trouble with everyone but his hard-core groupies. And groupies stick around long after everyone else has left the arena.

Dean can’t continue to throw out tasty tofu to his left-wing crowd. As the polls tighten, he is beginning to tack to the center. He has suddenly found religion, at least in the south. Last September he said, “I stood up against all the president’s tax cuts,” and wants to repeal them all, including those helping middle-class Americans. Now he stresses the importance of payroll-tax reform and says that he’ll announce, sometime in the future, a tax-relief plan for the middle class. When he was governor of Vermont, though, he was something of a fiscal moderate and not a big taxer. Which raises the question he hasn’t quite been able to answer in this campaign: Who is the real Howard Dean?

The problem for Dean is that when he makes these remarks and insinuations–not prejudging Osama bin Laden, insisting he wasn’t a strong NAFTA supporter when he had previously proclaimed that he was–he doesn’t quite know how to gracefully backtrack. He doesn’t want to admit that he made a gaffe or changed a position; he just tries to wipe the slate clean and repeat today’s more politically palatable stance (as he did in proclaiming his newfound love for the Iowa caucuses). I think he should have stood his ground on his larger point about Confederate flag lovers–that Democrats need to appeal to conservative southerners–but the pressure proved too great. Reporters, of course, revel in these controversies and relentlessly try to point out contradictions between what a candidate said last week or last year and the message he’s peddling today. Which is why Dean is increasingly avoiding journalists and his staff is trying to muzzle him.

The Dean surge didn’t happen by accident. Many voters find his regular-guy, say-what-you-think bluntness refreshing, even when they disagree with him. But now that he’s the frontrunner, the previously feisty underdog keeps getting in trouble with the “gotcha” reporters with whom he must play the game.

Zipping his lip–at least until Trippi & Co. approve the script–is likely to help him slip through the primaries successfully even though the newest straight talker, Wesley Clark, is supposedly wearing really loud shoes (how many more times can the spokespeople use the words “they hear our footsteps”?).

But Democrats may be left with a candidate who is missing the very trait that made him stand out from the focus-grouped, consultant-driven crowd. And that could make for a very boring election.

Sheri Annis, a Washington, D.C. media consultant is a veteran of several California political campaigns.

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