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