My favorite schadenfreude moment last night: watching Sen. Tom Harkin pretend (I’m assuming he was pretending) to enjoy Howard Dean’s maniacal performance on stage after his stunning third-place finish. Dean looked as scary as he ever has. Nothing is weirder than someone trying really, really hard to look happy and energized when he’s really annoyed and disappointed. Dean looked like the Incredible Hulk, just before he turns green. Harkin must have been thinking: I endorsed this. There was a perverse pleasure in watching Harkin, since his endorsement was so opportunistic, based on a calculation that Dean would win. He deserved every moment standing behind Dean tonight, deserved every shrieked state name, and especially deserved that weird, painful primal scream/battle-cry/whatever: “YAAAARRRRHHHH!”
Who knows how Democrats–especially Democrats in cranky New Hampshire–will react to Dean’s performance last night, but if you had doubts about Dean, they certainly couldn’t have been allayed.
Outside of any question of the merits of John Kerry’s candidacy, you can only admire what he has just pulled off. Talk about a Hail Mary! Written off by everyone (including me in NR), down to third in New Hampshire, Kerry staked everything on Iowa, mortgaged his house, and pulled it off. His supposed strengths that hadn’t been strengths for maybe a year–his experience and his war record–suddenly were strengths again. This is the strongest statement in favor of simply not quitting since the movie Rudy.
I have no idea how this all will play in New Hampshire. Maybe that state’s voters will, in a counter-Iowa move, revive Dean. (I hope not.) On the other hand, maybe Democrats cannot be expected to do themselves in with Dean. I wonder how many Iowa Dems looked at those Club for Growth anti-Dean latte ads, dismissed them as ridiculous, but said to themselves: “Ah, that’s what they’re going to do to Dean–better look elsewhere.” Dean’s campaign could be getting stripped down, as the other candidates steal his appeal. Kerry is the better antiwar candidate. And John Edwards is the better outsider candidate. Last night Edwards talked, Dean-style, of the “movement” he is creating. (Minor bragging point: I did write a couple of weeks ago that Edwards was smart to stay positive.)
My guess is that Wes Clark is going to be hurt by all this. Not just because he will have to stem the tide of momentum from Kerry and Edwards. Iowa also speaks to a certain seriousness on the part of Democratic voters–it was an anti-flaky vote. And Clark is plenty flaky. John Edwards may have the most upside: unlike Dean, he’s not Howard Dean; unlike Kerry (who will certainly lead in New Hampshire polls soon), he’s not a known, somewhat tired, commodity; unlike Clark, he’s not given to off-the-wall comments. There were reports in recent days of crowds pulling at Edwards’s clothes as he passed by–that is a little reminiscent of Bobby Kennedy.
Whatever happens, it will be unexpected, exciting, and fascinating. All of this, in the divisions it will create for their party, may not be good for Democrats, but it’s pure joy for political observers. Thank you, Democrats!
–Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.