50,000,000 Kerry Fans Can't Be Wrong Can They?

And other questions from the campaign trail

In the days following the Iowa caucuses, and the New Hampshire primary a week later, the political news was all John Kerry all the time, and you could not read far or listen long without finding the words shocking and stunning applied to his ascent from the political dead.

I. Howard's End

The biggest surprise was Kerry himself. Long known as a remote, patrician figure of no great energy or conviction--just a couple of weeks before the Iowa turnaround, Gore Vidal remarked that he was looking "a lot like Lincoln, after the assassination"--Kerry caught hold of something in the waning days of Iowa. Periodic visits to C-Span confirmed the buzz: Kerry was actually lighting up rooms, and he was doing it with relentless, full-throated attacks on the Bush regime that would have been inconceivable coming from any mainstream Democrat six months earlier.

But in itself, the resurrection of John Kerry is not the great mystery. In a field that for months had seemed to consist of Howard Dean and everybody else, Kerry was always one of the likelier suspects to rise from the pack in the event that Dean faltered. The abiding question is, how did the Dean campaign fall so far so fast? This is a query for historians now, and in a year we'll have our pick of several books on the subject. They will variously ascribe his collapse to one or more of a handful of factors: his purported "unpresidential" temperament; the very selective scrutiny of American media toward an establishment outsider; the concerted efforts of his Democratic opponents and of party chieftains to smear Dean in the weeks before the Iowa caucuses; and the campaign's own shrillness and self-referentiality at crunch time.

Dean's disappearance was so abrupt and so complete that some now argue it was an another internet-spawned bit of hoodoo, like the dot-com stock bubble of the '90s: The Dean groundswell vanished so quickly because it never really existed. If not, how did the campaign manage to raise $40 million, mostly in increments of less than $200? It's more apt to say that the whole cyber-buzz surrounding Dean amounted to a layer of mystification that caused many to overestimate the size of his following--and its degree of commitment to Dean the candidate versus its taste for an anti-Bush, antiwar, anti-cronyism message that, for a long time, only Dean espoused.

When the tell-alls have been published and some of the machinations exposed, we will gain a more nuanced picture of Dean's rise and fall, but I suspect the arc will be roughly this. Under ceaseless and often unfair attack, by the media as much or more than his Democratic foes, Dean played into their hands at the most critical point of his Iowa campaign. He spent too much time angrily parrying attacks. But more than that he inadvertently turned the focus of his campaign from the issues that had elevated him to his own cult of personality. While his opponents were copping his best lines and elaborating on them, Dean gave his same "red meat" stump speech and bragged increasingly of his great organization and the inevitability of their cause. I watched a number of his campaign appearances on C-Span, too, and often found something creepy about the insularity and self-satisfaction of those events. (That was the unnerving thing about The Scream, wasn't it? That the whole tenor of the Dean rally that night felt so at odds with everybody else's reality as to seem cultish?)

Evidently others thought so too. But if the hordes of Democratic primary voters proved not to like or trust Dean very much in the end, give credit where it's due: Howard Dean nonetheless shaped the campaign we see unfolding in front of us. Now that Kerry has gotten across by means of populist-sounding frontal assaults on the Bush White House's actions, motives, and morals, it's easy to suppose that course was inevitable all along. It wasn't. In fact, there is not much to criticize about the Bush gang now that wasn't already manifest by last summer. (Shitty economy, as far as jobs are concerned; ample public evidence that Bush lied us into war; clear signs that we would be in Iraq a very long time despite the president's pledges...and so on.) But back then, John Kerry's "message," according to Iowa sources he visited around the time, was Hi, I'm John Kerry, and it's my turn.

Dean's tenure as frontrunner forced the rest of the Democratic field to talk tough against Bush as well. And it has paid off very handsomely in a couple of ways we can already measure: record or near-record turnouts at every Democratic primary and caucus held so far, and southbound approval ratings for Bush and his gang.

II. Kerry vs. Kerry

"He's going to be the nominee of the Democratic Party, and he's coming across as a future president," Washington Rep. Norman Dicks raved to an L.A. Times reporter last week. "He's just on fire." This could prove hazardous in the long run: Many longtime Kerry watchers still insist that down deep, he's made of wood. In Boston, Kerry is a famous target of mockery for liberal and conservative columnists alike. The criticisms usually concern his imperious manner, his love of privilege, his unerring sense of what is best for John Kerry. For years his nickname among reporters was "Live Shot," a reference to Kerry's gift for turning up in front of any camera in his vicinity. If he is elected, his wife's nearly half-billion-dollar fortune will make him the wealthiest president the country has ever had.

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