Ballot Box

I See Dean People

Howard Dean’s fatal echo chamber.

MANCHESTER, N.H.—The crowd in the Palace Theater in Manchester has come to see a live performance by Howard Dean. But the theater also shows movies, and that’s how today’s “town hall meeting” begins. From every corner of the auditorium, people with Dean shirts, Dean stickers, and Dean posters cheer and clap as they watch a film about people with Dean shirts, Dean stickers, and Dean posters. If you want to understand why Dean has gotten where he is, for good and ill, here’s your answer: a campaign about itself.

The Internet helped Deaniacs find, organize, and fortify each other. Together, they built confidence and strength. They spent hours discussing topics such as “Why I love Howard Dean,” “When did you fall in love with Howard Dean,” and “Enough about Howard Dean—what do you love about Howard Dean?” But the more they affirmed each other, the more they lost touch with the rest of us. Even their first taste of reality, a third-place finish in Iowa, couldn’t shake them. The movie they’re watching now shows Dean shouting in a speech weeks ago, “Let’s win in New Hampshire!” As Dean continues speaking, the soundtrack mysteriously goes silent for a moment, just long enough to make his next sentence inaudible. Reading his lips, I could swear the bleeped-out sentence is, “Let’s win in Iowa!”

The airbrushed, self-validating fantasy goes on as actor Martin Sheen takes the stage to introduce Dean. Sheen plays President Josiah Bartlet on NBC’s The West Wing, which the Dean campaign has adopted as its model. Bartlet was a brainy, hard-nosed governor of New Hampshire; Dean was a brainy, hard-nosed governor of Vermont. Bartlet’s campaign called itself “Bartlet for America.” Dean’s campaign calls itself “Dean for America.” Lately, Sheen has been stumping for Dean, as though Bartlet’s imaginary presidential authority should carry weight in the real world. “As the acting president of the United States,” Sheen begins, and the crowd whoops with delight. Sheen goes on to talk about his role in Gandhi. “Nowhere was that film more successful than in my own community of Hollywood,” says Sheen, without a trace of irony.

There’s a blissful moment of authenticity as Judy Dean, the candidate’s very un-Hollywood wife, steps to the podium to vouch for her husband. But in less than a minute, she’s gone, and Howard Dean has taken the microphone to “thank President Bartlet” as everyone applauds. Dean proceeds to describe an imaginary world in which he was “the only one” to oppose President Bush on a series of issues. “I’m the only governor in the country who stood up for civil unions” for gay couples, says the man who signed Vermont’s civil unions bill behind closed doors after his state’s Supreme Court forced him to.

Dean insists for the hundredth time that “there was no middle-class tax cut” under the Bush administration. He makes the same valid argument he has always made: Middle-class families lost more money from higher college tuitions, health insurance premiums, and property taxes than they gained from the tax cuts. But instead of calling this a net loss, Dean denies that the tax cut happened at all. Dean also claims that David Kay, the departing chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, said last week that “there was no evidence there ever were weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq. Actually, Kay said the WMD were destroyed some time after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But that’s too nuanced for Dean’s world.

Dean makes light of his concession speech on caucus night in Iowa, in which he vented his emotions with a visceral roar. In the week since then, he has repeatedly explained that he wasn’t trying to scare the television audience; he was just trying to mirror and affirm the enthusiasm of his supporters who were in that room in Iowa. But that’s the problem. Dean wasn’t talking to the country. He was talking to his movement. And when he capped that speech with a fiery litany of states that he would win after Iowa—Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, Arkansas, Connecticut—he was exhorting his troops to vanquish the Democratic presidential candidates from those states. It was the speech of a crusader, not a president.

Today, as Dean starts to talk about health care, a guy in the balcony interrupts him. The guy says he was unemployed but was able to see a doctor, thanks to Vermont’s health insurance program. “Some people heard Howard Dean scream, and it made them run away,” the guy shouts. “I heard Howard Dean scream, and it made me wake up!” The crowd whoops, and Dean smiles. But a few minutes later, when a protester interrupts Dean, the guy from the balcony barks at the protester, helps wrestle him out of the room, and is still breathing heavily with rage a minute later.

I don’t know whether there are enough people like this guy to power Dean through tomorrow’s primary. But I do know there aren’t nearly enough of them to elect Dean president. I wonder whether Dean and his followers will ever wake up—and how many of the rest of us will have to run away before they do.