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The Accidental Populist

Jon Stavole

On December 7, Howard Dean delivered an amazing and almost universally ignored speech on race, money, and American politics to a gathering in Columbia, South Carolina. Dean was on hand for two reasons--to atone for his suddenly notorious offhand remark that he wanted to be "the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks," and to seek a primary-season coup in the backyard of rival John Edwards, whose campaign sputters more with each passing day. What he offered up was an obvious but officially verboten blueprint for a different kind of national political campaign:

In 1968, Richard Nixon won the White House. He did it in a shameful way--by dividing Americans against one another, stirring up racial prejudices, and bringing out the worst in people.

They called it the "Southern Strategy," and the Republicans have been using it ever since. Nixon pioneered it, and Ronald Reagan perfected it, using phrases like "racial quotas" and "welfare queens" to convince white Americans that minorities were to blame for all of America's problems.

The Republican Party would never win elections if they came out and said their core agenda was about selling America piece by piece to their campaign contributors and making sure that wealth and power is concentrated in the hands of a few. To distract people from their real agenda, they run elections based on race, dividing us, instead of uniting us....

In America, there is nothing black or white about having to live from one paycheck to the next. It's time we had a new politics in America--a politics that refuses to pander to our lowest prejudices. Because when white people and black people and brown people vote together, that's when we make true progress in this country.

A year from now, any number of things may have happened. Howard Dean, or some other Democrat, may have swept W from office owing to circumstances still unforeseeable from here. More likely, Democrats and the pundit class will be busy invoking empty, age-old clichés to explain the latest electoral train wreck. In the not-unlikely event that Dean's campaign is brought to ruin, part of the key to the tale will lie forgotten in the Columbia speech, which helps explain why he finds himself in the unfortunate position of running against both major parties. If you like what Dean had to say, savor it now, because you aren't likely to hear it on the stump next fall even if Dean is the nominee.


The grand irony in the case of Howard Dean vs. the Democratic Leadership Council is that it's not at all clear that Dean ever seriously meant to take on the Democratic party establishment, or that he will even carry through with the battle. He talked a tough anti-establishment line out of the gate, yes, but that was the smart outsider play, and Dean's candidacy had struck party sultans as a bit of trivia from the start. As governor of Vermont and already as a presidential aspirant, Dean has tended to speak boldly first and tack practically to the right when under fire. It isn't hard to imagine his fashioning a rapprochement with the party elite as his campaign flourished.

If he had been allowed to, that is. But the party blew it. The DNC's controlling junta--the Clinton/McAuliffe New (business) Democrats--consistently underestimated Dean's appeal and treated him with such raw contempt as to make an alliance impossible in the near term. They tried very hard to derail him instead, which is why so many party regulars have labored to breathe life into the listless, late-entry bid by Wesley Clark. (Gore Vidal on Clark: "I don't like these men of great accomplishment who've accomplished nothing, and who mean nothing.") And for what it's worth, the DLC's principal attack hound, Tailgunner Joe Lieberman, has shown no signs of relenting in his verbal assaults. In one of those bits of doublespeak for which Democrats are rightly as cherished as Republicans, Lieberman decreed that Dean's opposition to the war and to Democratic complicity in it proved him a "divisive" force in politics.

Dean, meanwhile, has conducted a back-channel outreach to many prominent Democrats, resulting most famously in his December 9 endorsement by Al Gore. The question of the hour is whether Dean is trying to wrestle the party into embracing him or to take it over. He is on record loudly intimating the latter, but--well, this is American politics, and people say a lot of things. More tellingly, perhaps, there are many in and around the national Democratic fold who really do believe that Gore and Dean have it in mind to take the party away from the DLC once and for all. It's far too early to tell whether this is true in any meaningful sense (it's one thing to really mean it in December, another to stake your future on it in July), but a couple of observations may be safely made from here.

First, a serious run at taking over the party machine would oblige Dean to keep running against his own party not just through primary season but the general election as well. In that sense it would be very much like McGovern and '72 all over again--remember "Democrats for Nixon" and the more sub rosa means the Democrats used to undermine McGovern? To have any hope at all of winning such a race, Dean would have to take his Columbia speech on economic justice for all and make it the holy writ of his campaign. He would have to break the first covenant of our dysfunctional political family, which is never to involve outsiders in family business. The dirty little secret of the me-too Democrats is that they are really no more keen on appealing to "nontraditional voters" (traditional nonvoters, that is) than Republicans. And according to the Washington Post, Republican functionaries are beginning to grow scared of Dean's capacity to do just that.

Second, you can probably forget nearly everything in the foregoing paragraph, because the chances that Dean will pick such an audacious course and stick to it are surpassingly slim. The presumptive philosopher king of Dean's epic confrontation with the DLC, after all, is Albert Gore Jr. It's not hard to believe that Gore would like to seize the party apparatus from Clinton & Friends, but why should anyone get excited about the prospect of what he might do with it?

A few eternally masochistic Democrats are trying to make out that they finally have the new Al Gore they were promised for so long. One of the smartest consultants I know recently told me that Gore finally seems to have come into his own. "He seems to be at his best when he's had a chance to go away and just think," the politico said hopefully. "Like when he wrote his book." But the mirage of a bearded, far-seeing Gore foraging for nuts and berries with Tipper at his side faded after a mere few seconds. "Of course," my acquaintance said, "he had a populist revelation in the 2000 campaign, too, which is when his numbers finally jumped a little bit. It lasted about a week."

Optimists will correctly point out that Dean has yet to prove himself as craven as Gore. I'll go further than that: If Dean actually ran a campaign predicated on the values of his December 7 speech in South Carolina, he would have a plausible chance to win. As of this moment, he still could be either the next FDR or the latest Al Gore. But the whole corpus of conventional wisdom in American politics will continue pressing him back toward the fabled "center" and the Democratic fold. And if he goes there, the race will be entirely Bush's to win or lose.

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