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The Adventures of Steve

Episode 16: Goodbye Doctor Dean

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

I found a perfect eulogy for Howard Dean's candidacy today, from the London paper The Guardian. Since I could not have done better, I'm sending this out in hopes that you'll find the same satisfaction and solace I did. Thanks.

Spirit of the Dean machine

by Gary Younge
Wednesday February 18, 2004
The Guardian

If there is one thing more spectacular than the rise of Howard Dean, it has been his fall. On the early evening of January 19, shortly before Iowa caucus-goers assembled to pick the man they wanted to challenge President George Bush, he was poised to turn Democratic party politics inside out. Railing against the party establishment, he had more money, endorsements and high polling figures than anybody else.

By the end of the evening, he was a third place loser with a scream only a therapist could love. Six weeks and 17 contests without a win later, he looks a bit like an embarrassing uncle, hanging around the nibbles waiting to be told that the party is over and it's time to go home. Barring some Lazarus-like recovery in Wisconsin, by the time you read this he may have already been escorted out.

But, just as there was a huge amount that the left around the world could learn about his ascent, there are also valuable lessons in his demise that go beyond the United States. For in almost every party - from New Labour to Gerhard Schröder's SDP - there is potential for a Howard Dean to emerge and challenge their party hierarchies. True, if they are interested in enhancing their own career prospects the former Vermont governor is a poor role model. But if they are keen to improve their party's election prospects and set the agenda, he has broken and reset the mould.

Dean's rise showed it was possible to mount a credible electoral challenge from the left even in a country at war, where dissent has been marginalised by both the political and media establishments. Unlike the other two leftwing candidates - Dennis Kucinich and the Reverend Al Sharpton - Dean's candidacy was not symbolic but substantial. He stood in order to win - and for a while it looked as though he might. The fact that he didn't has bitterly disappointed some. The fact that he was in the running shocked even more.

His defeat indicates that even when the challenge does not succeed at the polls, it can, none the less, have a crucial effect on the entire political culture and enhance the electoral prospects of the centre-left as a whole. For as soon as Dean's candidacy proved viable it shifted the centre of political gravity considerably to the left, prompting a far more strident tone among all the candidates. By snatching the initiative away from the right, his candidacy made John Kerry look moderate and Bush look extreme.

By changing the terms of the debate, Dean forced all the candidates to address the kind of questions Democratic voters were asking and for which president Bush had no answers. By the time the polls opened, it was Kerry and Dick Gephardt who had to clarify why they supported the war, rather than Dean explaining why he opposed it.

In so doing, they were forced to address a section of their membership that the Democratic party, like New Labour, have held in contempt for the past decade - that awkward bunch who offer their support conditionally because they regard an election not just as a chance to change faces, but also policies and direction.

In his defeat, Dean revealed that this constituency does not comprise anything like a majority. But through his contention he has proved that, when mobilised, it is a sizeable minority that cannot be ignored. Between them, Dean, Kucinich and Sharpton have attracted, on average, just over one-fifth of the votes cast - a figure that held steady in marginal states the Democrats must win in November.

As a result, the Democratic party is now in far better shape to defeat Bush in November. In a contest where there will be few votes to be harvested at the centre, Dean has energised their base, contributing to record turnouts in most of the primaries and caucuses, and has highlighted Bush's weaknesses.

To pass all this off as a victory would be ridiculous. Having shaped the landscape, Dean found that others were better equipped to build successful campaigns on it. His tone was too edgy, his message too blunt, his spouse too absent for too long. Whatever the different human ingredients that voters look for in a potential president and whatever we may think of them, Dean clearly had too few, and those he did have he used poorly.

So for the significant number of Democrats, particularly, but by no means exclusively, the young, who had invested a huge amount of physical and emotional energy in him, his broader achievements offer little solace. Their devastation is both understandable and unfortunate.

Understandable because, for many, this was their first involvement in politics, either ever or for a long time. Losing so heavily was dispiriting. Unfortunate because had they believed their own rhetoric the defeat would not have come as quite so much of a shock. They told every one who would listen that they were going to "take back America". But apparently some thought this task could be achieved at the first attempt and that America - corporate, military, fundamentalist - would come quietly. Having berated the media for being biased they were shocked when they were misrepresented.

Whether the energy Dean has unleashed has a lasting effect or not will depend on the great unknown - what the nascent movement that gathered around him will do without him. Those who got involved only so that they could elect Dean will be disillusioned, because their work stops here and does not resonate beyond US shores. Those who joined up so that they could make a difference should be delighted, because theirs has only just begun and holds a lesson for all of us.

 

All of the Adventures of Steve

   Episode 1: In which Steve leaves Eugene and arrives in Rancho Cordova.
   Episode 2: In which Steve visits the Jelly Belly factory and gets a haircut.
   Episode 3: In which Steve gets a cold, a big box, and a seat on a train.
   Episode 4: In which Steve receives shiny new toys and loyal old friends.
   Episode 5: In which Steve departs for Iowa and rants a bit about why.
   Episode 6: In which Steve takes a trip to Des Moines.
   Episode 7: In which Steve gets really involved.
   Episode 8: In which Steve starts hobnobbing but is haunted by Arne Baker.
   Episode 9: In which Steve becomes a groupie and is informed that we all have love in our hearts.
   Episode 10: In which Steve becomes a media whore.
   Episode 11: In which Steve takes on Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine and Michigan.
   Episode 12: In which Steve is pitted against Fort Dodge, Iowa and seven vans of unruly Texans.
   Episode 13: In which Steve learns that all his hard work wasn't enough to put the candidate back together again.
   Episode 14: In which Steve does nothing.
   Episode 15: In which Steve reaches a decision and attempts to get virtually hired.
   Episode 16: In which we thank the good doctor for all he did.
   Episode 17: In which Steve suits up for a new life in the Cap City!
   Episode 18: In which Steve starts to realize he’s not in Eugene anymore.
   Episode 19: In which Steve switches from job seeking to home seeking.
   Episode 20: In which Steve starts to learn some things via the error side of trial and error.
   Episode 21: In which Steve experiences his first blizzard.
   Episode 22: In which Steve contemplates his next move.
   Episode 23: In which Steve prepares to switch gears... again.
   Episode 24: In which Steve spends a week in a hotel with four thousand teenagers and then gives his 30-day notice.
   Episode 25: In which Steve reminisces about his 10 weeks in Columbus while waiting in the wings.
   Episode 26: In which the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
   Episode 27: In which Steve changes everything.
   Episode 28: In which Steve finds Brood X, gets a teeny crush on a fellow trainee and learns where he's going, approximately.
   Episode 29: In which Steve starts to see how politics really works.
   Episode 30: In which Steve writes a letter to Kelly, executive director of the group that fired me.
   Episode 31: In which Steve spends a tentative week commuting to work in Maine.
   Episode 32: In which Steve learns he's just one piece on the board.
   Episode 33: In which Steve settles in for three months of intense campaigning.
   Episode 34: In which Steve is deep into the final countdown.
   Episode 35: In which Maine wins, the nation loses and Steve heads home.
   Episode 36: In which Steve doesn’t do much more than comb the classifieds and update his Web site.
   Episode 37: In which Steve slips into a normal life.

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