Iowa Death Trip

Jonathan Stavole

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.)  

Even in fielding such a candidate--and thereby making the election more or less a straight referendum on Bush--I suspect the Democrats would have a better-than-advertised chance to win. But leaving the initiative mainly in Karl Rove's hands hardly seems like a best-case scenario.


Tuesday morning's conventional wisdom got one thing right: The biggest beneficiary of the whole pageant was Edwards, largely by virtue of his being neither of the main things Kerry is: a Boston Brahmin stiff ticketed for burial in the South, and an already failed one-time frontrunner. (Yes, Kerry's a war hero--which might forestall certain kinds of attacks from the Bush camp, but hardly looks like a marquee attraction in a race defined by the economy and by widespread opposition to a war that Kerry supported.) If Dean stays on the ground, which is not quite a forgone conclusion just yet, Edwards could be looking as invincible as Dean once did by the time the Super Tuesday southern primaries roll around on March 2.

Besides Dean, the other big loser in Iowa may prove to be the man who wasn't there, Wesley Clark. When the field appeared to be Dean and everybody else, Clark's late entry and his tough-guy bona fides as the former NATO Supreme Commander made him a lightning rod (or a Trojan horse) for the proto-Republican Democratic Leadership Council, the ruling party junta arrayed around the Clintons. In short order he became the party's Get Dean vehicle of choice. Bill and Hill stopped short of endorsements, but both had auspiciously kind things to say about Clark. Later the general got big wet smooches from Michael Moore and George McGovern.

A four-way pileup such as the polls predicted would have elevated Clark even further. But with Kerry and Edwards each amassing over 30 percent and running away from the field, Clark's future usefulness is in question. Suddenly he's no longer the only guy in the limelight who is not Howard Dean. Good thing, too. There are those who still think that a four-star general offers the best possible contrast to Bush's military recklessness, but Clark comes with more liabilities than any of the Democrats left in the field, including Dean. In terms of practical politics, Clark has no experience at all with the issue that most motivates voters in Iowa and elsewhere, the economy. And his credibility as a critic of the war and the administration is undermined by any number of stories about his chumminess with the Bush gang in the past three years.

Clark elected to stay out of the Iowa race, but he was nonetheless an important player there. A disproportionate amount of the dirt dished in the caucus race originated with the Clark campaign's dirt-digger, the "opposition researcher" Chris Lehane. In particular, one New York Times profile of Lehane revealed that Dean's people hold him responsible for the single most damaging bit of anti-Dean agitprop, an old appearance on Canadian television in which Dean derided Iowa's caucus system.

The general is a creep, but he also shows signs of being a genuine megalomaniac. There is the murky, disturbing yarn most of us have already heard and forgotten, concerning his 1999 orders to a British general in Kosovo to intercept some Russian paratroopers who had landed at the Pristina airfield without authorization, to which the Brit famously replied, "Sir, I'm not going to start World War III for you." Within the past few weeks, Clark has made two more pronouncements that ought to chill anybody who's paying attention. First he swore that no terrorist attack on a par with 9/11 would ever happen during a Clark administration. Then he proclaimed that Osama bin Laden would already be caught or killed if he were president.

Best case, this is mere shamelessness on a Bush-like scale. I don't think so. I think he means every syllable. Did you catch Clark on Bill Maher's HBO show last Friday night? There's a gulf between the man's cloying argyle sweaters, avuncular smiles, and bright, empty eyes that suggests Mr. Rogers--back from the dead, with a taste for human flesh. It's hard for me to imagine that Clark is anything but Karl Rove's first choice for an opponent on the morning after Iowa.  

If Iowa has turned Wes Clark into damaged goods, that's one cause for rejoicing. Another is that the Democrats' experience in Iowa revealed a depth and bitterness of anti-Bush sentiment round the countryside of which no one has quite taken the measure yet.

But when you're through rejoicing, you might take a hard look at what's left. I agree with Caddell and Buchanan that Dean still has a substantial base. But my gut feeling is that he's tired of this and he's already taken his best shot. If that's so, and Dean recedes from this point, will the Democrats left in the race continue what he's begun and keep turning antiwar, anti-Bush animus into new sources of money and votes? The answer is a lot less obvious and sure than it seems.

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