Howard, We Never Knew Ye

Dean’s biggest mistake was to run as a fake populist instead of as himself.

Will the real Howard Dean please stand up?
Will the real Howard Dean please stand up?

The trouble with the Howard Dean who today ended his candidacy for president wasn’t that he was too liberal, or too crazy, or too much of a Washington outsider to win the Democratic nomination. The trouble was that he didn’t exist.

Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was a sensible and decent centrist politician whose greatest asset in a potential match-up with President Bush was his record of fiscal conservatism. Indeed, after Sen. Bob Graham, a former Florida governor, departed the race, Dean was the only major Democratic presidential candidate with any substantial management experience at all, unless you counted Gen. Wesley Clark, whose military experience didn’t translate well into the political realm, and Dennis Kucinich, who as mayor of Cleveland two decades earlier had presided over its default. Both Clark and Kucinich had been fired from their big management jobs, Clark by Defense Secretary William Cohen and Kucinich by an overwhelming majority of Cleveland voters. Dean, by contrast, had served successfully as Vermont governor for a decade.

Dean had inherited a $65 million deficit from his two liberal predecessors and wiped it out within three years, mainly by cutting spending—not the “rate of spending growth” but the spending itself. Nationally, he’d pointed out the need to limit increases in Medicare spending and to raise the Social Security retirement age, two fiscally responsible positions that he repudiated last year after being attacked by candidate Dick Gephardt. This set a pattern for the Dean campaign. He would distance himself from moderate positions he’d taken as governor, often with an untruthful denial that he’d ever held the position in question, and take a more populist and irresponsible stance instead. In time, this created a hugely popular hologram that purported to be Howard Dean.

Some of the “left-liberal” positions the hologram trumpeted during the campaign were entirely in tune with the real Howard Dean. It was a sober impulse, not a radical one, to oppose sending troops into Iraq while Osama Bin Laden remained at large. Similarly, by supporting civil unions for homosexuals, Dean simply reiterated the support he’d given the nation’s first civil union law while governor. As has been widely been noted, lending government sanction to longterm single-sex relationships was a fundamentally conservative gesture.

But much of the hologram’s leftism—for instance, his disavowal of the North American Free Trade Agreement—seemed patently insincere. The hologram’s cheapest and most alarming statement was his Dec. 1 suggestion on TheDiane Rehm Show that President Bush had been warned in advance by the Saudis about the Sept. 11 attacks. Conservative commentators correctly pointed out that it was difficult to distinguish this remark from the one that had brought universal condemnation to Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., who lost her seat as a result. You can probably trace the unraveling of Dean’s campaign to his 9/11 comment. Chatterbox, who was halfway through a Slate column disputing the Washington establishment’s notion that, if nominated, Howard Dean would bring the Democrats McGovern-like defeat, lost all confidence in this argument and abandoned it. Even George McGovern, who had seemed to be edging toward a Dean endorsement, threw his support instead to Wesley Clark.

In announcing his withdrawal from the race, the hologram pretended that Dean’s failure was due to the “enormous institutional pressure in our country against change.” The real Howard Dean surely knows better. It’s true that the establishment media made far too much of Dean’s untelegenic speech to his supporters after his Iowa defeat and of his wife’s reluctance to play the Barbie doll spouse on the campaign trail. (It subsequently repented on the latter point but stuck to its guns on the former.) But the hologram’s real problem wasn’t that Dean sounded too angry or too far left. It was that he was getting harder and harder to believe.

Dean’s influence on the presidential contest will be much discussed in coming days, and certainly it’s true that the other candidates have been wise to accommodate themselves more fully to the World Wide Web, from which the hologram harvested a fortune in small donations. But John Kerry, who’s worked hard to co-opt the hologram’s phony populism, might want to rethink his strategy. Kerry makes an even less convincing populist than Dean, and the press and the Bush White House have already started calling him on it. Kerry would do better to be himself. The real John Kerry is nowhere near as appealing as the real Howard Dean, but he’s a lot easier to like than the phony Kerry—or, for that matter, the phony Dean.