NASHUA, N.H.—I’m feeling sorry for Dennis Kucinich. And the feeling just makes me feel even sorrier, because pity isn’t the emotion he’s trying to evoke. Kucinich is standing in front of more than 1,000 Democrats at a fund-raiser Saturday night for the New Hampshire Democratic Party, at which every candidate in the New Hampshire primary except Al Sharpton is scheduled to speak. Kucinich must know that he’s not going to win Tuesday night, but at the same time he surely fantasizes that this is his moment, this is his chance to make a winning, last-ditch appeal for his unlikely candidacy.
I am the only candidate who voted against the Iraq war and the Patriot Act, Kucinich proclaims to fervent applause. I am the only candidate “who insists on an immediate end to the occupation.” Imagine a presidential debate between President Bush and my opponents (other than Al Sharpton), he says. They supported the war, they voted for the invasion, or they support the occupation. “Where’s the debate with President Bush?” he asks.
And it’s not just the war. Kucinich wants not-for-profit single-payer health care, and his opponents don’t. “This is the time,” Kucinich is saying, but I can’t hear the rest. He’s being drowned out, at least in the back of the room where I stand, by cries of “How-ard! How-ard! How-ard! How-ard!” coming from the hallway, where Howard Dean must have just arrived. Nearly a year of campaigning by the Ohio congressman for the highest office in the land is summed up in this moment. What must it be like to imagine yourself as the leader of an incipient movement for progressivism and then to have that movement led by another man, one that you view as a charlatan?
The night’s other tragic figure is Joe Lieberman. He’s begging for scraps of support by appealing to state pride, the last refuge of a second-tier candidate. “Hey, let me tell you this, I love New Hampshire,” he says. “Did you see me at the debate the other day? I swore to God to fight to the death to protect the first-in-the-nation status of the New Hampshire Democratic primary.” Lieberman knows he’s not popular, but he’s hoping against hope, too. “Looking around this room, I see there are some people supporting some other candidates for president, and I respect that diversity,” he says.
See, Lieberman’s not a conservative Democrat. He’s diverse! “I have never wavered for a moment” on the need to remove Saddam Hussein, he says, and it sounds like three people clap. I’m more electable than the others, he says, because there are “a surprising number of Republicans who are disappointed with George W. Bush and ready to go for an acceptable alternative.” There’s a winning Democratic primary message: The candidate whom Republicans kinda like!
Lieberman can’t get it right even when he’s shoring up his liberal bona fides by talking about his plan to fight poverty. “Is it right for George W. Bush to have turned his back on 35 Americans in poverty?” he asks, omitting the crucial word, “million.” But he’s not discouraged. “I feel something happening in this campaign for me,” he says. “My staff says that in New Hampshire today, there is an outbreak of ‘Joe-mentum,’ and I hope so.” That’s only the latest painful “Joe” pun in a Lieberman campaign list that includes the “Joe-vember to remember” and the campaign vehicle, the “WinnebaJoe.”
As he’s wrapping up, thanking “the people of New Hampshire for the warmth and respect” they have given him, Lieberman’s speech has the feeling of a farewell, very much like a speech I saw Dick Gephardt give the night before the Iowa caucuses. Miracles do happen, and the Lieberman campaign is circulating a poll that shows him in a fight for third place (most polls show him mired in fifth), but inside this room it feels as if Lieberman, like Kucinich, is clinging to a fantasy.
Of the other candidates, Wesley Clark comes across the worst. “I haven’t been a member of this party for very long,” he says, and the crowd grumbles. “I know,” shouts one man, while another calls out, “No shit!” Now that Dean has turned down his volume, Clark is the race’s screamer, and he sounds a little unhinged. “We Democrats have got to take out that president,” he says, in an unfortunate turn of phrase for one of the two candidates that has actually killed people. The crowd’s applause is polite but tepid, and the race feels like it’s slipping away from Clark, too.
The chair of the Democratic Party, Kathy Sullivan, introduces Dean as if he’s a figure from the distant past, praising him for energizing the party “at a time when we were tired and unsure of ourselves.” Dean draws big cheers, but they mostly come from the people in the back rows and in standing-room-only. A woman calls out to him, “Howard, don’t ever give up.” A man yells, “Give ‘em hope, Howard!” Dean’s eyebrows rise as he smiles his wicked grin. “I’m going to resist the temptation,” he says.
Nearly a year ago, Dean appeared before the Democratic National Committee’s winter meeting and declared, “What I want to know is why in the world the Democratic Party leadership is supporting the president’s unilateral attack on Iraq.” He pricked the post-9/11 bubble surrounding Bush and in the process transformed himself from a curiosity into a contender. But his speech Saturday barely touches on Iraq. He also says something I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say before: “I ask for your vote.”
John Edwards captivates the crowd. Edwards doesn’t transfix me the way he does other members of the press. His way of merely describing his message as “positive” and “optimistic” and “uplifting” rather than, you know, actually having a message that embodies those qualities grates on me. What’s the difference between Edwards’ rhetoric and the awkward “Message: I care” rhetoric of George H.W. Bush? Edwards also has this new gesture he’s using, where he puts a finger to his lips to appear thoughtful, that makes him look like Austin Powers.
But his message undoubtedly connects. He enters to enthusiastic applause, though it’s not Dean-level. His speech about two Americas, about the importance of fighting poverty, and the borrowed Deanisms about restoring American democracy and taking it away from “that crowd of insiders in Washington, D.C.,” and the “I believe in you” conclusion wins nearly everyone over. Edwards has become Howard Dean in the body of a good-looking, smooth-talking Southerner, and as he did in Iowa, he feels hot, hot, hot.
Of course, they’re all Dean now. (Or, as The Nation’sDavid Corn put it, they’re “the Angry Populist, the Calm Populist, the Polite Populist, the Executive Populist, and the Radical Populist.”) John Kerry, who I think has the support of the majority of the crowd, says he wants to “break the grip of the powerful interests in this country and put the people in charge.”
If Kerry, or whoever is the party’s nominee, becomes president in 2005, he’ll have Howard Dean to thank. Dean won. That’s why he’s losing.