If a Dean Falls in the Woods

G.R. Anderson Jr.

The morning after Howard Dean's fall from grace in Iowa became a fait accompli, some true believers were still looking on with shock. It wasn't so much that Dean came in third; over the weekend, his own people were trying to put a positive spin on finishing third. (One Dean staffer even bet $5 with a journalist that her man would not beat a 30-percent over/under.)

The trouble was that Dean had fallen so far behind the top two finishers, John Kerry and John Edwards. "We got clobbered," is how Dave Nagle, a former member of Congress from Iowa (1987-93) and the head of the state Democratic Party in the early 1980s, put it Tuesday morning. Nagle had thrown his weight behind Dean, and he still predicted victory as recently as last Saturday, despite declining poll numbers. By Tuesday he had a more sober assessment.

"First, he had to fight a war on two fronts," Nagle said. "It's hard to win with a critical press and your opponents taking shots at you simultaneously." Dean's relationship with the press had soured to the point that it became the only news about him over the weekend in Iowa. Nagle concedes that the two-front skirmish took Dean off message. "The governor became defensive, rather than sticking to his strategy, and it cost him." Finally, Nagle said that none of the supporters of the Iowa bottom-feeders gave their support to Dean: "He didn't pick up anybody."

While Dean's loss in Iowa is a major setback, Nagle and other Dean supporters maintain that they aren't about to dry up and go away. Maybe it's even better this way, Nagle noted: "This might be the kind of year in which it's better not to be the front-runner. The criticism directed to the leader is nonstop."

"This is a marathon, not a sprint," Nagle insisted. "And the Dean people are quite loyal."


Whatever the fate of Dean's candidacy, a visit to Iowa last week seemed to confirm what his robust internet fundraising indicated all along: His campaign has genuinely excited a lot of people who found something different and appealing in his antiwar, anti-Bush, anti-business-as-usual campaign.

Just who Dean's people are, and how much impact they will really have, has been the subject of much debate and skepticism, an argument that's sure to intensify in light of his poor Iowa showing. Two weeks ago, a conservative group called the Club for Growth spent $100,000 to air a television ad all over Iowa decrying Dean backers as "latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving" freaks. And there still lingers the derisive tag of "L.L. Dean," eastern elitist.

But talking to Dean supporters around Iowa in the days before Monday's caucuses revealed quite a different picture. The crowds he drew in Sioux City and earlier Saturday in Mason City were mostly average working folk: skilled laborers, educators, municipal employees. (Some were union people, a group that failed not only Dean in Iowa; their lack of impact disappeared Dick Gephardt from the map entirely.)

Many of the Deanies I spoke to in Iowa referred to his candor and contrarian stances in terms that would be familiar to Minnesotans who felt similar ties to Paul Wellstone or Jesse Ventura. His anti-corporate campaign-stump populism cuts across gender, age, and race lines that make his followers hard to pigeonhole. He may not be perfect, they said, but he's honest.

Looming over the proceedings, of course, was the specter of George W. Bush. One caucus veteran from Des Moines told me last week that Iowa Democrats haven't been this angry at a standing president since Nixon, more than 30 years ago. Discontent with the Democratic Party has been a quieter draw, but a real one. As Nagle put it last week, "I've seen people coming back to the party that I haven't seen for 20 years. They finally feel like they can fight the DLC with Dean, and don't have to be embarrassed to be a Democrat anymore."

After Monday night's debacle, one of the ironies of Iowa appears to be that the outsiders and alienated old-school Democrats drawn into the fold by Dean proved to have very fluid allegiances. Without exception, and contrary to the protests of Dean loyalty by Nagle and others, Kerry and Edwards consistently did better with the various new people Dean allegedly brought to the dance--the antiwar crowd, young people, first-time caucus participants.

Nonetheless, Nagle said last week, what Dean has ignited is a "tug-of-war between the Clinton Democrats and the old-school Democrats, who want to be outspoken again. This is about a titanic shift of focus for the party, from temperate and accommodating to pushing for an aggressive agenda."

If Dean was flagging, he never acquiesced on the stump, repeatedly hitting on just a handful of themes: the war, corporate privilege, health care, and the harm Bush's tax cuts involve for middle-income pocketbooks. "How many of you saw your property taxes go up last year?" he asked over and over again.

Now all the others are stealing Dean's rhetorical thunder, at least for the moment. Whether that will cause mass defections across the country, as appeared to be the case in Iowa, remains to be seen. But the underlying point may be what Dean has demonstrated to everybody else: that a previously unsuspected number of people want very much to hear a candidate breathing fire at George W. Bush and at the me-too politics of "moderation" that have dominated the Democrats for over a decade now.

It did leave one question, though: Is Howard Dean still a vital part of what Howard Dean started? For some, even in Iowa, the answer is emphatically yes. "Look, I don't think he's going to lose here," Pat Conroy, a school superintendent, said Saturday. "But if he does, we keep going. We're not going to other candidates. We're not going anywhere."

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