Ballot Box

Howard Dean’s Quagmire

He’s won the campaign war. Now comes the postwar.

Dean: Look for the union label

If you like postwar Iraq, you’ll love the rest of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign.

It’s ironic that Dean made his name opposing the war. His campaign bears a striking resemblance to it. Skeptics said toppling Saddam Hussein would take months, but it was over in a flash. The same seems true of the Democratic presidential contest. Dean has blown away his competitors in the money race. He’s tied with Dick Gephardt in the polls in Iowa—Dean will probably win it—and he’s killing John Kerry in New Hampshire. Today in the ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., Dean gets the joint endorsement of two powerful labor unions. Their message is: The race is over. Dean has the magic, the money, and now the muscle. The atmosphere is celebratory. The only thing missing is a banner declaring, “Mission Accomplished.”

But the mission isn’t accomplished, any more than it was in Iraq. Dean has toppled the previous front-runners, just as Bush toppled Saddam. Now the attacking is over, and the defending begins. And as Bush knows, the postwar can turn a lot uglier than the war.

What does Dean need defending against? You name it. Gephardt has dredged up quotes in which Dean bashed Medicare and said he would consider raising the Social Security retirement age. So, Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, brags onstage that SEIU’s endorsement gives Dean the support of the country’s biggest health care union. Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, says Dean will make sure Medicare and Social Security are “adequately funded.” The testimonials reek of defensive language. In his speech, Stern says his members are “totally comfortable” with Dean’s positions on health care issues. That’s like a white person saying he’s “totally comfortable” with the black family next door.

Speaking of black families, that’s the next item on Dean’s damage control list. I thought the flap over Dean’s embrace of “guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks” was unfair, but he’s taking no chances. More than half the workers on stage with him are black or Latino. As Dean ascends the stage, he reaches back to clasp and raise the hand not of Stern, the white man next to him, but of a black woman in the row behind him. Then Dean spends an unusually long time talking about the civil rights movement and its icons: MLK, the four girls in Birmingham, the Voting Rights Act, Thurgood Marshall. The awkward moment comes when Dean says accusingly of Bush, “The word ‘quota’ is a race-coded word!” Well, yes. So is “Confederate flag.”

Then there’s the wimp factor. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that Dean’s opposition to the Iraq war will kill him in the South and Midwest. I’m not so sure. Isolationism sells. Dean gets his biggest applause today when he says Bush can surely cough up $87 billion for universal health care if he “can run that [amount] on our credit card and send the money to Iraq.”

The bigger problem is that Dean’s blood is bluer than his collar. The labor guys onstage know it. That’s why they brought a third union, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, into this event. SEIU claims 1.6 million members. AFSCME claims 1.4 million. IUPAT claims 140,000. Numerically, that’s a rounding error. But symbolically, it’s important. AFSCME represents government workers, and SEIU represents service workers. Without hard hats on stage, Gephardt’s buddies in the manufacturing trades could easily dismiss this event as Sissies for Dean. Hence the painters, who stand behind Dean in black T-shirts and hard hats, making clear that they’re not talking about van Gogh.

Unfortunately, Dean doesn’t blend in too well. He enters the hotel in business attire, then ducks into a side room to don a green AFSCME T-shirt and purple SEIU jacket. His mistake is leaving his tie on. As he takes the stage, the knot of the tie pokes out above the collar of the T-shirt, making it look as through he’s wearing a preppy green sweater under his sailing jacket. McEntee, a bruiser, hoists Dean’s hand and rallies the crowd with bellowing cheers. Dean grins awkwardly, like a lawyer who has wandered into the wrong bar.

On its own, I don’t think this class mismatch will kill Dean in a general election. But in combination with his position on Bush’s tax cuts, it’s fatal. McEntee says the rich made out like bandits under the tax cuts “while the rest of us are kind of lucky to get a dime.” Dean tells the crowd, “Sixty percent of us got $304. And you know what? You didn’t even get $304,” since state and property taxes went up to compensate for lost revenue. On its face, it’s a losing argument: Bush gave you so little money that Dean needs to take it back. That’s one postwar fight Bush can expect to win.