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December 9, 2003

Sheesh! Nobody talked about "reshaping

Daniel Radosh

Sheesh! Nobody talked about "reshaping the race," when I endorsed Dean last week. Actually, I'm glad I got that on record before Gore did so no one would think his approval influenced me [Maybe your endorsement influenced Gore – Ed.. Um, I don't have an editor –DLR]. I also think I criticized Dean unfairly when I took him to task for trafficking in conspiracy theories. Stupidly I did not listen to the whole interview, relying on a quote put out by right-wing critics. The quote itself is pretty indefensible, but Dean later made clear that when he said Bush may have been "warned ahead of time by the Saudis," he didn't mean that Bush was specifically told that on Sept. 11, hijackers would fly planes into the World Trade Center (only Jews got that call), but rather that he may have had more specific intelligence that Al Qaida was plotting to hijack planes and use them as missiles in general, which he brushed off. Not only is that not conspiratorial, it's probably close to the truth.

I also pointed out that one of the things I like about Dean is his willingness to take the fight directly to Bush –- on policy levels, of course, but also on political ones, which is why I think he can win (or at least, why he has a better chance than rest of the Democratic field; I don't actually think Bush is beatable – yet). Bill Greider makes the same point, more persuasively:

Howard Dean is an odd duck, certainly, in the milieu of the contemporary Democratic Party. He is, I surmise, a tough and savvy politician of the old school--a shrewd, intuitive pol who develops his own sense of where the people are and where events are likely to take public opinion, then has the guts to act on his perceptions. That approach--leading, it's called--seems dangerously unscientific in this era of high-quality polling and focus groups, the data interpreted for politicians by expensive consultants. The press corps has not had much experience with Democrats of this type, so reporters read Dean's style as emotional, possibly a character flaw. He reminds me of olden days when Democrats were a more contentious bunch, always fighting noisily among themselves and often with creative results.

The ubiquitous "party sources" have explained that Dean merely caught a lucky break by declaring early and forcefully against the war on Iraq at a time when Americans were overwhelmingly prowar. Who knew things might change? The doctor knew.

A more pertinent question is, Why didn't other leading candidates see this tragedy coming? Their reticence was symptomatic of the inert Washington insiders, exceedingly cautious, indifferent to whatever roils the party's rank and file, and always a few steps behind the curve. The explanation that Washington candidates voted for the war on principle or were misled by Bush doesn't help them. Their blindness to the potential consequences (now unfolding) is another reason to be for Dean. He, meanwhile, speaks plainly to the error of US imperialism. "America is not Rome. We do not dream of empire. We dream of liberty for all."

The man also stands his ground in a fight. When someone jabs him, he jabs back. Pundits describe this quality as dangerous, and no doubt it gets him into trouble occasionally, but what a refreshing departure from the rope-a-dope calculations of the Clinton era. This trait is what I like about him most. In my experience, it's more revealing than a politician's positions on issues. With issues, Dean is pretty much what he says: a middle-of-the-road moderate, neither left nor right, though middle in Vermont is liberal ground. As governor, he was skilled at maneuvering through contending forces, sometimes angering both sides in the process.

I think Republicans are actually a little scared that Dean is so good at playing Bush's game. David Brooks is shockedshocked that Americans are getting behind a politician who knows how to reinvent himself:

My moment of illumination about Howard Dean came one day in Iowa when I saw him lean into a crowd and begin a sentence with, "Us rural people. . . ."

Dean grew up on Park Avenue and in East Hampton. If he's a rural person, I'm the Queen of Sheba. Yet he said it with conviction. He said it uninhibited by any fear that someone might laugh at or contradict him.

Precisely, in other words, the way Bush says such things. In fact, Brooks goes on and on pointing out Dean's shifting personas (though no one will ever be able to splice together an old Dean vs. new Dean debate the way The Daily Show did so effectively with Bush) and his allegedly frightening self-confidence: "A normal person with no defense policy experience," sniffs David, "would not have the chutzpah to say, 'Mr. President, if you'll pardon me, I'll teach you a little about defense'"

With every sentence like that I thought, Oh I see where Brooks is going with this: at the end he's going to say, Surprise! Replace Dean's name with Bush throughout and you'll see that they're essentially the same animal (Brooks has made a similar point before). But instead his punchline is, "The only problem is that us rural folk distrust people who reinvent themselves. Many of us rural folk are nervous about putting the power of the presidency in the hands of a man who could be anyone." Oh really, so who the fuck are you supporting. The self-proclaimed compassionate, inclusive, environmentalist who's currently in office?

Bushies suffer a similar disconnect when they dismiss Dean by saying that anger – as if that's all he's about – can never win the support of the American people. But what was Bush's campaign about if not anger. Sure, he talked about tax cuts, but his big applause line was his promise to "restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office." He beat Al Gore (if he did) because Americans were still seething over Bill Clinton's hummers. At least Dean voters have something real to be angry about.

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