Politics & Policy

Victory Without Victory

The pre-primary Dean hype is followed by post-defeat hype.

With Hurricane Dean finally ending its run, some fascinating discussions will be breaking out around kitchen tables, at bars, on pundit shows, and throughout the political world in the coming weeks. A preview:

#ad# “He’s the most consequential loser since Barry Goldwater.”The Wall Street Journal.

Maybe, but Goldwater at least got the nomination. His record in the 1964 GOP presidential primary, mediocre by today’s standards, demonstrated much wider and more serious support within the party than Dean. He won narrow victories in Illinois, Indiana and Nebraska, upset New York governor and favorite Nelson Rockefeller in California, and won the nomination at the first ballot with 883 delegates to 214. By comparison, Dean’s inability to best Kerry or Edwards anywhere suggests a fringe or boutique candidate.

“He’s this great person who led this amazing movement that’s really changed the substance of how politics is conducted.”–Karen Hicks, Dean’s New Hampshire state director.

But he didn’t win any states. The closest he came was second in New Hampshire, where he got 26 percent of the vote, about 13 points behind Kerry. Can you really “change the substance of how politics is conducted” by never winning more than a quarter of the vote in any Democratic primary?

“Generations from now, we will still be talking about Howard Dean.”– Parag Mehta, a campaign aide to Dean, as told to the Washington Post.

Yes, we political geeks will still be talking about him when debating the most spectacular political flameout in campaign history. Dean will have considerable competition from John Connolly in 1980, John Glenn in 1984, Gary Hart in 1988, Phil Gramm in 1996, Bill Bradley and Elizabeth Dole in 2000, and Wesley Clark. in 2004.

“People were resigned to Bush the war leader getting a second term. Then suddenly this doctor from Vermont appeared, articulating a clear unequivocal opposition to both George Bush and the war. He said what Democrats thought. In a plain no-nonsense way. And in the space of a few weeks, he went from zero to hero.”–Tom Carver, BBC correspondent in Washington

And in the space of a few weeks, he went back to zero again.

“Dean also introduced a new style of political campaigning…First of all, it was orchestrated through the Internet. Secondly, the campaign did not try to coral or dictate from above like most political operations… The only trouble was – in the end, these techniques didn’t deliver the votes.”–Carver again.

You’re starting to get the picture. This new style of political campaigning isn’t going to catch on until it’s proven to get results.

“The most powerful thing this campaign did is bring young people to the political process. These people really changed America’s politics.”–Joe Trippi, Dean’s former campaign manager

But the Dean campaign didn’t bring enough young people to the political process to win anywhere. He didn’t win New Hampshire and South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico. He never made it to California and Texas and New York. He never got to South Dakota and Oregon. He lost Washington and Michigan. And he never came anywhere close to Washington D.C. to take back the White House. In fact, he lost the D.C. primary, at least the binding one.

John Edwards credited Dean for enlisting “hundreds of thousands of Americans who had never participated in a campaign before.” John Kerry said Dean “has done an extraordinary job of invigorating a whole group of people who were divorced from the political process.”

Well, of course you guys are praising him. All these new voters he allegedly invigorated or enlisted ended up voting for you two.

“He made people believe and have hope again.” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D., Calif.)

Hope for what, another Newsweek cover or one more glowing profile in the New York Times? More blogs?

“I’ll always remember the sight that greeted me when I drove over the crest of a hill in the middle of the woods in Walpole, N.H., last summer. It was a full six months before the primary, yet the scene looked like a Grateful Dead show–fields were turned into parking lots as 1,500 people with backpacks and baby strollers walked up a dirt road toward a hilltop home to hear former governor Dean speak. Dean didn’t disappoint the pilgrims that day. He rarely did.”–Maura Keefe, a senior adviser to Dean for America

Yeah, yeah, the man’s a fiery speaker. So is Alan Keyes, and you don’t hear much talk about his impact on American politics.

There’s going to be a lot of talk about the powerful grassroots movement that Dean, Trippi and the gang built. And in select ways, they were powerful. They were effective in fundraising, recruiting volunteers, generating hype, and favorable media coverage, and building web sites. But they failed – spectacularly–in the one key test of any political movement: Convincing people to actually go into the voting booth and pull the lever for you.

There’s obviously some truth to the argument that Dean pulled Kerry, Edwards, and Gephardt to the left. But the current spin that somehow Kerry or Edwards are now carrying Dean’s message requires the belief that Democratic primary voters somehow decided either one of the senators would be more likely to enact the Dean agenda than the Vermont governor. The argument that Kerry is the New Dean contends that Democrats voted for Kerry because they wanted Dean. No, they wanted Kerry.

A week before the Wisconsin primary, Dean himself had the most honest assessment of how a little-known governor of a small state had become not just frontrunner, but a phenomenon.

“Where I was then was probably a lot of hype,” he told the Green Bay News-Chronicle. “I’m not the front-runner any more because of hype, and now I’ve got to earn my way back to the front.”

He entered the campaign with hype, and now he’s leaving it with hype.

Jim Geraghty, a reporter with States News Service in Washington, is a frequent contributor to NRO and a commentator on London’s ITN News.

NR Staff — Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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