Iowa Death Trip

Howard "Hindenberg" Dean and the rest

The waters of Iowa are often a mixed tonic to visitors who imbibe them. In the black heart of winter, 1959, Buddy Holly journeyed there with a miserable cold and a yen for home; his brief stay cured both. More recently, Cary Grant went to speak to a Davenport film society in 1986 and, upon arriving, thought it better to expire in his hotel room instead. Howard Dean was lucky to get out badly mangled.

John Kerry's big number, stunning as it is, hardly seems the main story here. Few people think Kerry, who has already fumbled away the party's favorite-son status once, will keep looking strong when the primaries head south shortly. Iowa will likely wind up meaning more to Dean, John Edwards--even, in absentia, Wesley Clark--than to Kerry.

The real fight in Iowa from the start was the national Democratic establishment's full-on press to unseat Dean as frontrunner, a fight that had been slated since the interloper from Vermont began raising a fortune on the internet and talking reckless talk about not only beating Bush but remaking the Democratic party. Iowa regulars called it the nastiest internecine fight they had ever witnessed, and there's no contesting that it was the most expensive--over $10 million on TV advertising alone.

However vicious the beatings, though, Dean's Iowa collapse was in considerable part self-administered. For most of the past month, the pack snarled at Dean and he always snarled back. Along the way he managed to unravel himself. Among the TV pundits, the Democratic pollster Pat Caddell put it best: Dean's campaign ceased to be about anything but--Dean's campaign. Everywhere he went in the last weeks, he shouted slogans and bragged of his superior organization (prompting a reasonable question: So what do you need us for?) while his opponents began talking issues. Iowans, well acquainted with their own status as a cherished national punch line, know when they are being talked down to. In the end Dean lost a lot by sheer condescension.

Last night as the final numbers dribbled in, there was an interesting moment on MSNBC. The aforementioned Caddell and Pat Buchanan ganged up on Chris Matthews for calling Kerry the new leader in the race. Each argued that the Dean movement nationally was for real, and that his setback in Iowa shouldn't be overstated. (Even in the middle of getting attacked in Iowa, Dean raised another $2 million in donations during the first 10 days of January, roughly half as much as either Kerry or Edwards was able to raise in the last quarter of 2003.) Getting back the mantle of insurgency might even help Dean, they suggested. It all made sense for five or ten minutes, until the candidate appeared before the cameras to deliver a concession that aimed for tent revivalism and came up all Wrestlemania instead. Shouting out the names of his opponents' home states and vowing to win them, he looked every inch the intemperate boob his detractors made him out to be. You expected him to lock his hands together, flex his pecs, and growl.

Whether there's a continuing national foundation for a Dean campaign may be a moot question. He looks like a man who has just about had it with campaigning. Privately, some Dems in Iowa and elsewhere who have spent time with Dean outside the glare of flashbulbs say he genuinely despises the tumult and the circus aspect of political campaigning--and has no abiding sense of humor or perspective about his distaste. I find this a positive testament to Dean's character, myself, but it doesn't augur well for his chances. It wouldn't be entirely surprising to me if Dean dropped out of the race abruptly at some point, and well before he's clearly beaten.

Or not. His overwrought extemporizing on Monday night proved that his ego's still in it; maybe his political imagination will rejoin the wagon train at some future stop. But in either case it was clearly Dean who defined the entire race in Iowa, and not just in the sense that it was predicated on knocking him down. When Kerry and Edwards passed Dean, they did it by giving Howard Dean speeches. It was Dean's seeming formidability in Iowa that finally led the others to heat up their antiwar, anti-Bush rhetoric, and they struck gold in doing so. Bush-bashing stump speeches across the board produced Iowa's largest caucus turnout ever, and the media spotlight there seemed to depress W's approval ratings, which were back down to 50 percent in a New York Times/CBS poll last weekend.

Basking in their newfound sense of purpose, Iowa Democrats scarcely seemed to notice that Kerry and Edwards alike voted for both the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. It was supremely strange to see entrance polls indicating that Kerry, and in some cases Edwards as well, outperformed Dean with precisely the demographic segments Dean's early campaign excited most: antiwars, first-timers, under-30s. Kerry and Edwards (call them The Hair Club for Democrats) got by with this sleight of hand in Iowa, where the brightest light always shone on Dean, but presumably they won't be able to run from the disconnect between their present and past positions forever. They are saying things a lot of people want to hear, but in a general election either of them could be painted convincingly as a by-the-numbers political opportunist. (The wooden, patrician Kerry hardly needs anyone else to do the job for him; it seemed telling that he lost his voice at the end in Iowa, after several straight days of uncharacteristically raising it.)

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