Ballot Box

Picnicking Populists

The Democrats call Bush a liar.

Gephardt and Dean on the Iowa road show

On Sunday, several Democratic presidential candidates spoke at an Iowa picnic hosted by Gov. Tom Vilsack. Here are a few trends and highlights worth noting.

1) PO’d about WMD. The alleged misrepresentation of U.S. intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction is catching fire on the Democratic campaign trail, if not among the general public. Howard Dean opened his speech with the WMD issue and openly alluded to Watergate. “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” asked Dean. He often looks angry when he’s talking about Bush, but this time he looked furious.

Dennis Kucinich made the same point, but it wasn’t clear how much the political climate had changed till Bob Graham spoke. Graham has been bobbing and weaving for months on the Iraq question. His position hasn’t changed, but it’s so convoluted—he opposed the war because we should have declared war on several other enemies first—that he can spin it either way. Sometimes he pitches it as an anti-war position; sometimes he pitches it as an ultra-hawkish position. It depends which way the wind is blowing.

In this speech, Graham veered sharply in the dovish direction. He bragged about voting against the resolution authorizing the use of force. He decried the growing death toll of American soldiers. He demanded to know why Bush wasn’t asking other nations to share more of the burden. Then he wove the WMD controversy into a larger “pattern of deception,” extending from the administration’s secret energy task force to its suppression of deficit forecasts. It was the most persuasively drawn ethical indictment of the administration I’ve seen and certainly Graham’s most creative gambit. But more on him tomorrow.

2) The candidate. Dean is far and away the most interesting player in the race. Not since Clinton have Democrats seen a talent like this. Here’s Dean on the federal budget:

When Ronald Reagan came into office, he cut taxes, we had big deficits, and we lost 2 million jobs. When Bill Clinton came into office, he raised taxes without a single Republican vote; we balanced the budget; we gained 6 and a half million jobs. George Bush has already lost 2 and a half million. I want a balanced budget because that’s how you get jobs in this country is to balance the books. No Republican president has balanced the budget in 34 years. …You had better elect a Democrat, because the Republicans cannot handle money. … We’re the party of responsibility, and they’re not.

When you hear Dean talk like this, you wonder why no one else can make the party’s case so simply. If more Democrats spoke this way, maybe they’d control a branch of government.

Success is beginning to warp Dean a bit. He told the Iowa crowd, “People inside the Beltway have said that because I told the truth early, that I’m unelectable. [But] it may be because I told the truth early, that I may be the only one who’s electable. We have got to stand up for what we believe, regardless of the polls.” Dean has been using that third sentence for months. But the first two are new. He’s no longer speaking as freely, because he’s become a major player. He’s worrying not about the beginner’s problem of getting attention but about the advanced problem of projecting electability. That kind of calculus is the opposite of what attracts people to Dean. A principle you advertise as an asset to your electability feels like no principle at all.

P.S.: No politician who’s truly foreign to the Beltway talks about “the Beltway.”

3) Elf improvement. This was the best speech I’ve seen from Kucinich. He showed up in a ridiculous golf shirt that accented his lack of shoulders. His mouth barely reached the mike. Then this angry little socialist elf launched into a tirade worthy of William Jennings Bryan. He vowed to tear up NAFTA and the agricultural “monopolies.” He waved a House resolution demanding an inquiry into Bush’s WMD claims. He charged that organized labor had been “crucified by this administration.” He dropped his voice two octaves, wrapped one hand around the mike, and croaked the word “waaaaaar” into it like a rock star. He even sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The crowd loved it. Somebody toss a dollar in his guitar case so he can buy a quart of milk.