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Dumping Dean
by George Shadroui
26 January 2004

It has been remarkable to watch the unrelenting assault on Howard Dean in recent weeks, and particularly in the days between the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

Let me say up-front that I have a conflict of interest where Howard Dean is concerned. My parents were raised in Vermont and until a couple of years ago, I had spent at least a week there every summer of my life.

It is a place made for reverie: the beautiful Green Mountains, clear brooks and streams, the impressive Lake Champlain, small villages that look like postcards, and a local culture that resists the tides of conformity that have washed over much of the nation.

So Howard Dean’s politics never surprised me. My late father and I spent many an evening arguing politics with liberal relatives in Vermont – all stridently wary of a Republicanism that embraces a corporate agenda and too easily yields to cultural homogenization. They are suspicious of the projection of American power abroad and a little too keen on government activism.

On some issues they make sense, on others they can, like Dean, be flaky. All of that conceded, it has still been remarkable to watch the unrelenting assault on the Governor in recent weeks, and particularly in the days between the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

If MSNBC “Hardball” host Chris Matthews showed Dean’s post-caucus speech in Iowa once he showed it 10 times. Again. And again. And again. He took great pleasure in playing it and in comparing Dean to Hitler or a rabid dog. Others joined in on other networks. For two or three days you could not turn to one of the all-news channels without seeing Dean fuming. I have not seen such an overreaction to a silly moment since, well, maybe never…..

Let us reflect on what actually occurred. A disappointed candidate, confronted with a large crowd of supporters, wanted to thank them and reenergize them in the face of what appeared to be a crumbling campaign and candidacy. So he tried to pump up his disappointed troops. He didn’t say anything controversial or stupid. He simply growled a little. He was laughing. They were laughing. Granted, the guy isn’t Vince Lombardi, but come on. What is the big deal?

William Bennett had it right. This was a non-event and a non-issue compared to many other things done or not done by other major candidates. Consider, for example, Wesley Clark’s refusal to distance himself from Michael Moore’s charges that President Bush was a deserter. Or John Kerry's ties to big money, even as he tries on the populist mantle of Dean. Yet, many in the media, mostly Democrats, desperate to destroy Dean’s candidacy, used the Iowa speech as excuse to fire (metaphorically) a few more shots into his still quivering political corpse, lest it rise again.

In short, what we witnessed was the assassination not of the man, but of his viability as a presidential nominee. The Democratic establishment, as Susan Estrich acknowledged, was mortified by Dean’s success and understandably wary about what his winning the Democratic nomination might do to the long-term future of the party. Dean is a maverick, a man who appeals to the angry and the disenchanted, and he could have stepped easily into the role of Ross Perot had he not, surprisingly, emerged as the frontrunner.

He had to be destroyed, if not for the sake of a given candidate, for the sake of the party. The result was a barrage of attacks from Democratic candidates and the media. So far, it has worked. Dean’s inexperience has shown and his campaign leadership, as green as the mountains in Vermont, has not held it together.

Witness the appearance on "Hardball" by Dean’s campaign manager after the New Hampshire debate on Thursday. He walked into the trap not so subtly laid by Matthews, who asked the manager if he felt there was a conspiracy to destroy Dean. You could see Matthews, the seasoned political pro who wrote the book on “Hardball,” gleefully waiting for the silly fish to bite. He did.

The poor guy had barely gotten a “Well, maybe…” out of his mouth before Matthews was barking for specifics and names. Who is behind the conspiracy, Matthews demanded to know. You’re a campaign manager, be specific. The guy was reeling and finally sputtered some nonsense about the Republicans being behind it. I wanted to reach into the television set and shake the guy – hey, moron, don’t you get it, the Republicans want your man to win. It is the Democrats and their media waterboys who want Dean out. (Of course, what he should have said was: we’re big boys Chris, and when you’re running out front, you have to be able to take some hits. So we aren’t complaining. We’re gearing up for a long, tough campaign.)

But Matthews succeeded, once again, in portraying Dean and his campaign as inexperienced, naïve and not a little paranoid. And that was the whole point of the exercise. With Matthews around (and I enjoy him occasionally, don’t get me wrong), DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe need never utter a word against the anti-Clinton Dean.

We have not seen such brilliant political knife work since Nixon and his crew did in Muskie. What looked to be a Dean juggernaut a few weeks ago has been reduced to a hobbled wagon train, with the wagons circled and the settlers badly outnumbered. It is uncertain that Dean, even with millions of dollars in the bank, can undo the damage. Granted, he has mindlessly played right into the hands of the Democratic machine, naive in his conviction that sincerity is a substitute for seasoned judgment.

Presidents and potential presidents need to convey the image of grace under pressure. The impact of the non-stop assault has been to make him look very un-presidential indeed.. Once the air is out of the balloon, it is tough to get it airborne again.

Dean may yet revive his sinking fortunes. But if he doesn’t, one thing is certain. What has happened to his campaign has not been an accident. He might have gotten himself to the ledge, but there were lots of folks anxious to push. John Kerry should send Matthews a dozen roses or better yet sell copies of Hardball at his next campaign stop.

George Shadroui has been published in more than two dozen newspapers and magazines, including National Review and Frontpagemag.com

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