But here at home, he was again ignominiously crushed by John Kerry.
In Michigan, where Dean had insisted (in abandoning mini-Super Tuesday’s seven states) he’d make a strong showing, he had based his hopes on the fact that Michigan’s new Internet voting was supposed to start at the beginning of the year, when Dean was still riding high in the polls.
But, as the AP reported days before the caucuses, the geniuses who run the Michigan Democratic Party had decided to send out the absentee ballots with instructions and web access codes by bulk mail! This meant that Democratic voters didn’t receive their ballots until after the Iowa/"I Have a Scream" disasters. The state’s governor, the telegenic Jennifer Granholm, had endorsed Kerry before the caucuses—but she’d really signaled her Kerry preference last year when she made him the headliner at a party fundraiser; and "Mr. Granholm," Dan Mulhern, had already taken a leading role in the state Kerry campaign, including signing a letter to the Democrats begging them to withhold their choice until after Iowa and New Hampshire. It would be churlish, of course, to suggest that the "bulk mail" sabotage of an expected larger Dean vote had anything to do with the Granholm family’s preferences. In the end, Kerry’s Michigan avalanche buried Dean by 35 points.
But the Deaniacs will need more than conspiracy theories to justify their campaign’s implosion. Having read the Detroit News polls, Dean fled the impending Michigan disaster for Washington, another caucus state where a smaller voter pool also presumably favored the still-faithful Deaniac internauts and their recruits. But Dean was out of money for Washington, and had only one office and six staffers for a large state whose more liberal and more conservative halves are bifurcated by a mountain range.
TV’s burbling heads kept talking about Washington as one of the most "left-wing" states in the nation: the worst of this ignorant gush came, predictably, from Chris Matthews, who on caucus night called the Washington Democrats "almost socialist." Well, for years the dominant figures in Washington Democratic politics were Scoop Jackson, known as the "Senator from Boeing," and Warren Magnuson, the solon who was another stooge for the state’s considerable military-industrial complex. Today, the state's governor, Gary Locke, is a quintessential DLCer; so is Sen. Maria Cantwell, the once-wealthy Internet entrepreneur who bought herself her seat and then got plucked when tech stocks collapsed. The third state-wide Dem, Sen. Patty Murray, is another timid centrist whose arrival in the Washington establishment was marked when she was anointed head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Socialists" all, Chris? Even Seattle hasn’t had a radical moment since the 1919 General Strike. And modern Washington’s forests conceal a lot more than Seattle’s upscale latte-drinkers and Microsofties.
Winning a caucus depends on pulling out one’s vote—and Joe Trippi’s profligate spending had left the Vermonter without the wherewithal to corral his diminishing and already-demoralized troops. Washington turnout was infinitely less than had been projected, and Kerry easily chopped down Dean like an undergrown tree by a whopping 18 points. "I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay..." as Kerry would sing if played by John Cleese. Timberrrrr!
Then there was Maine, where Dean had transferred some of his New Hampshire field staff and where some of his loyal Granite State volunteers also journeyed. More bad news from the woods: even on this presumably more friendly New England turf, Down Easters insultingly ejected their neighbor-doctor by according a more than 19-point victory to Kerry, who hadn't set foot in the state. Timberrrrr!
There’s been a lot of ink spilled trying to explain the Dean campaign’s collapse, most of it missing the central reason. Trippi’s real genius had been to take a centrist, corporate-coddling, rather cautious, fiscally conservative governor—made malleable by his ambition—and morph him into the populist catalyst of the antiwar Democratic base and its visceral disgust with passionless me-too politics. Trippi may have seized the evanescent zeitgeist—but the positions he grafted onto his candidate were dictated by positioning against the rest of the field, not by thoughtful reflection and self-education on the part of the candidate.
As a result, Dean’s frequently self-contradictory positions had no intellectual or political depth—which is why he constantly found himself with his nether extremities galloping toward his oral cavity. He constantly rewrote his own history on issues. This, and the offhand dropping of impolitic gaffes that a more serious and thoughtful student of foreign policy would never have made—like those about Saddam and Osama, the two most reviled names in mass-media America’s vocabulary—made voters uneasy and distrustful. Add the hubris of his obsessive prating about the superbly democratic nature of his campaign when voters wanted to hear what he’d do about the rising price of a full supermarket caddy, and it’s clear the candidate cooked himself. The "I Have a Scream" speech only stuck a fork in him—he was already done. (Deaniacs may console themselves with the notion—perpetuated by Diane Sawyer’s taped comparisons—that TV unreasonably magnified the Scream by electronically muffling the wild noise of the crowd. But a seasoned politician knows the first rule is: never trust an open microphone, especially when TV’s eye is on you. Dean’s too-revealing rant was, above all, the suicidal blunder of an amateur not ready for prime time).
On the Sunday talk shows after the Michigan and Wisconsin drubbings, the sour-faced Dean—who after the Scream stopped even trying to be a Happy Warrior—gave the impression he’ll limp on to Super Tuesday even if he loses Wisconsin (he keeps moving the electoral cairn that marks his "last stand.") The Deaniac faithful have ponied up $1 million for TV beamed at the Cheeseheads. So what is Roy Neel, the lobbyist-fixer brought in from Al Gore ’s stable of hacks to save Dean from himself, doing with the dough? He’s abdicated campaign management to the Dean blogosphere, asking the Deaniacs to choose among three TV spots—crafted by some of Rob Reiner’s volunteer Hollywood meatheads—which they can watch on Dean’s website. I find these spots pathetically lame. They’re certainly not enough to slow even slightly the Kerry tsunami. By passing the buck to the blogosphere, Neel—dispatched to Dean’s side to harvest the remnants of Dean’s campaign for Gore’s inevitable ‘08 candidacy—is trying to avoid being blamed by the Deaniacs for the debacle to come.
Now it should be clear to those who couldn’t see it before: Dean is Al Gore—another spoiled rich kid who tried to pretend he was something he isn’t because his hired guns told him that was the thing to do. Accepting advice from the latest rented cosmetician, Dean has his campaign making reassuring noises that his ads and efforts won't take a scalpel to Kerry's rather vulnerable, pro-corporate record. "The folks in Washington who are concerned about this should relax," Steve McMahon, Dean's media adviser, told The Washington Post. "Everything's going to be fine."The 'outsider' doctor has become an anesthetist, sucking up to the insiders, and where he once wanted to 'take back' the Democratic party, he‘s now promising to be a docile boy and do what‘s good for it. And that’s no way to create the California/New York comeback of which Dean dreams.
Doug Ireland is a New York-based media critic and commentator whose articles appear regularly in The Nation, In These Times, and Tom Paine.com, where this article first appeared, among others.
Other Articles by Doug Ireland
The Two John
Kerrys: Will We Get the Populist or the Lord of Special Interests?