A Time to Vote
The Strange Rise and Fall of Howard Dean
What Does Dean's Trajectory
Reveal About Democrats and democracy?
In late 2003, Howard Dean was the "front-runner" for the Democratic nomination. Money, volunteers and endorsements were rolling in.
But suddenly, almost overnight, he was branded as "unelectable," and his campaign went into free fall. And just as suddenly, the long-lagging Senator John Kerry became the Democratic Party presidential nominee.
And all of this really happened before a single Democratic Party primary voter had actually voted on a candidate.
Who decided this? How did they do it? What does this say about how elections work?
And what does this say about where the people should focus their creative political energies to oppose the madness of the last few years?
Assumptions of the Powerful
Senator John Kerry carefully prepared his 2004 presidential run by supporting President Bush at decisive moments over the last three years.
Right after Sept. 11, Senator Kerry supported the extreme Patriot Act that rushed through Congress – giving dangerous, unprecedented police powers to the federal government and its agencies. A year later, on October 11, 2002, Senator John Kerry voted to give President Bush the power to launch an invasion of Iraq. Kerry endorsed Bush's bogus arguments for war: "The President laid out a strong, comprehensive, and compelling argument why Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs are a threat to the United States and the international community." Millions of Americans – protesters, pundits, and common people – were proclaiming that the arguments were bogus, but Kerry went with the President.
The Democratic Party's leadership approved, insisting (then and now) that no one could become president without being "strong on national defense, homeland security and terrorism." Kerry is a member of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) – a party inner circle dedicated to sticking close to a largely conservative agenda, especially on "muscular" international action, domestic police powers and cutting social services. [See G&G's description of the DLC - Ed.]
And so, Kerry quickly became known in 2002 as the "frontrunner" for the Democratic nomination.
The 2004 election plan for the Democratic Party was to strongly support aggressive U.S. moves abroad. Their main criticisms of the current government were expected to be limited mainly to Bush's "handling of the economy" and some limited complaints about Bush's "unilateralist" failure to involve European powers in the Iraq war. And, it was said, Democratic criticisms of economic policy also had to be limited. They would avoid putting forward sweeping or expensive plans for any economic crises – like the deepening impoverishment of the poor, unaffordable healthcare, the under-funding of retirement, or the gutting of manufacturing jobs from restructured global trade.
This had nothing to do with what the millions of members of the Democratic Party think or want. And it was decided without ever having any national debate about any of it. In fact, it was a way of preventing such a national debate.
Drawing in the Angry: The Rise of Howard Dean
Who are the people that the Democrats try to appeal to at the base? All the people who stand for progressive kinds of things, all the people who are oppressed in this society. For the Democrats, a big part of their role is to keep all those people confined within the mainstream electoral process...and to get them back into it when they have drifted away.
- Bob Avakian
The Pyramid of Power
and the Struggle to Turn
This Whole Thing Upside Down
The Democratic Party entered this campaign with a problem: millions of people in its social base wanted something else. Both its hardcore grassroots activists and those sections of the electorate that Democrats try to "turn on and turn out" – like Black people, college age students, progressive intellectuals, "blue collar" families, etc. – were eager for substantive change after these recent years.
Many Democrats have been deeply disturbed by the mounting flood of aggressive and oppressive moves made by the U.S. government. Many just hate-hate-hate George Bush and everything he stands for. And many were simply furious that the Democratic Party's top political representatives, like Kerry himself, Tom Daschle, and Hillary Clinton, had simply rolled over and endorsed Bush's moves.
This anger became increasingly intense as the Iraq invasion was launched in March 2003. Democrats flooded into the massive protests against that war. At this point, much of the Democratic Party base was hostile to the "Bush Lite" politics of John Kerry (and other awful presidential wannabes like Joe Lieberman, Bill Graham, Dick Gephardt, and of course John Edwards).
Enter Howard Dean, a virtual unknown. This former governor of Vermont had taken to the road on a long-shot shoe-string campaign, speaking to any gatherings he could find. Dean discovered that he drew cheers by simply saying, "I speak for the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." He would say: "Has anyone really stood up against George Bush and his policies? Don't you think it's time somebody did?"
The fact that Dean suddenly got a reputation as an angry maverick just for lambasting the incumbent shows how utterly slavish the rest of the Democratic Party has become. He made this approach his central theme – and his campaign "connected." Dean's website signed up thousands of supporters and raised millions of dollars.
What was the stand of the Democratic establishment to Dean's campaign?
It was two-sided and cautious. They welcomed the way he was bringing discontented, young, anti-Bush forces into the election. But they also warned that Dean should not be allowed to win. James Carville, a Clinton camp strategist, urged the Democratic Party leadership to give Dean a little time in the spotlight.
As the Iraq occupation went increasingly badly for the invaders over the summer of 2003, Dean began to talk about how the invasion had been justified by lies. And he started to rise in the polls. Time and Newsweek both put Dean on their covers in the week of August 11, 2003.
Meanwhile, during Dean's summer rise, the DLC was loudly saying that the Democratic Party (ultimately) had to nominate a candidate who more clearly supported the war. The New York Times (July 29, 2003) ran a headline: "Centrist Democrats Warn Party Not to Present Itself as 'Far Left.'" The DLC's chairman, Senator Evan Bayh, argued that the grassroots antiwar sentiments would not make it into the White House under foreseeable circumstances. "Do we want to vent, or do we want to govern?" Bayh asked his party.
It is remarkable that Dean's politics were disturbing for such powerful forces in the Democratic Party. Howard Dean is a rather conventional and "centrist" Democratic politician with a previous reputation as a "pro-business" governor. He himself remarked: "I think it's pathetic that I'm considered the left-wing liberal. It shows just how far to the right this country has lurched." (Washington Post, July 3, 2003)
Dean's views on foreign policy don't stray fundamentally from supporting U.S. dominance in the world. He opposed the invasion of Iraq – but said loudly that he supported aggressive moves in other parts of the world.
Still, Dean was packaged by the Democrats as the "antiwar candidate." He was offered to voters as a way to protest Bush's ugly war. Antiwar sentiments were (for the first time since Sept. 11) offered an outlet within the Democratic Party and the electoral arena.
But at the same time, people were being trained in an approved "antiwar" politics – where the so-called "antiwar" candidate opposes U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and supports years of continued occupation to achieve U.S. domination of Iraq. Antiwar Democrats were invited in, as long as opposing the larger U.S. global offensive was left at the door.
After August 2003, once Dean was accepted as a major candidate by both the Democratic establishment and the media, his operations took a leap. By the end of the next few months, he had registered 600,000 supporters online and had 3,500 mostly college-age volunteers heading for the January Iowa caucuses. By the end of 2003, he had raised $41 million, some of it from the usual capitalist "contributors" but also through hundreds of thousands of small donations.
When Dean Seemed Like a Contender
I actually do think the endorsement of Al Gore began the decline. The establishment in Washington really realized that I might be the nominee, and they did not like it.
- Howard Dean, on Larry King Live
Over the fall of 2003, Howard Dean attracted disgusted, anti-Bush forces and drew them into the folds of the Democratic Party. But he also did something else: he started to look like he might win the nomination.
American presidential elections feature a sharp divide between "serious contenders" and candidates who are supposed to run-but-not-win. Political figures like Jesse Jackson (in 1988) and Dennis Kucinich (in 2004) are supposed to bring new voters into the process or keep unhappy voting blocks from bolting. Dean had been tagged as such a candidate. But after September of 2003 he threatened to jump the unspoken divide and really contest for the nomination.
In August the New York Times was already calling him "the unofficial front-runner." By Labor Day, Dean was leading his rivals in all the polls of potential Democratic voters. In November he was endorsed by two major government workers' unions, AFSCME and SEIU, who regularly provide money and "foot soldiers" for primaries. And a huge turning point came December 9, 2003, when Al Gore gave a surprise endorsement to Dean. With this one endorsement, Dean suddenly seemed to have the signs of "Big Mo" (electoral momentum). It started a cascade of other endorsements from governors, 30 congresspeople, Bill Bradley and so on. There was talk that Dean might sweep the Iowa caucuses and then take the first primaries. At that moment, polls gave Dean a rising 33% of the Democratic vote, and showed Kerry "at the back of the pack" with 7%.
Gore's endorsement is an example of how candidates can't really become "serious contenders" until they are anointed by established ruling class figures acting as "king-makers." This time, however, Gore's endorsement immediately triggered high-placed demands for the Democratic establishment to pull the plug on Dean.
One particularly revealing call came from Fred Barnes, the editor of the influential, conservative "political insider" magazine Weekly Standard. Barnes wrote:
The anti-war, Bush-loathing, culturally liberal left now has the upper hand. Its dominance will likely culminate in Dean's nomination. This is an event to be feared. Why? Because it will harm the Democratic Party and lead to a general election campaign brimming with bitter assaults on the very idea of an assertive, morality-based American role in the world. And all this will play out as the war on terrorism, and the outcome in Iraq, hang in the balance. Gore's lurch to the left and Dean's likely nomination mean trouble. Can Dean be stopped? A stop-Dean movement may appear quixotic, but it's not. Dean has no lock on Iowa, and a lead even as large as Dean's in New Hampshire is always precarious...For themselves and their party, and because others haven't the moxie to step forward, it's time for the Clintons to take on Dean. (Weekly Standard, Dec. 18, 2003)
It is rare that the inner dialogue of the ruling class is expressed so bluntly.
First, Barnes is arguing that the coming "general election campaign" needs to be forcefully restricted to affirm "an assertive, morality-based American role in the world" – and not encourage "bitter assaults" on that idea. Barnes is not just saying that the election should be used to defeat and humiliate antiwar sentiments (as is sometimes done) – but that in this particular moment they should not even be allowed a prominent expression within the election.
Second, what does it mean to say Dean's nomination could "harm the Democratic Party"? It is a threat that a party that doesn't stick firmly enough to the ruling class consensus may find itself barred from power for a long time.
Third, Barnes (a notorious Republican Clinton-basher) is appealing to the Clintons on the basis of common class interests. He is calling on them to prevent Dean's campaign before the Democratic race gets to the primary voters. And Barnes completely assumes that ruling class figures (like the Clintons and him) will decide (and enforce!) what is allowed into these elections and what is not. Why does he assume that? Because that's how the electoral process actually works. The election circus is a year-long televised seminar where people are instructed by the ruling class on what to think about politics.
And fourth, Barnes openly talks about fear that "bitter assaults" might get heard in the "general election campaign." Why? Because the whole global U.S. gamble and the occupation of Iraq "hang in the balance."
Barnes is confessing that this system and its offensive are vulnerable – that things can get out of hand, and that this election must be used to tightly control the political sentiments and hopes that are allowed to define the terms of mass debate and expression. (Which is all the more reason for opponents of the government's agenda to organize massive opposition outside the tightly controlled electoral arena.)
A growing consensus was reached to simply not allow this election to become a public referendum on the Iraq war. This was decided in a high-level dialogue of key political figures within the capitalist ruling class and its political establishment.
And then, Dean was simply taken down. His personality and positions were villified systematically – mainly by the political establishment of his own party, but eagerly aided by the mainstream media (including especially the so-called "liberal" press, like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, etc.).
The Hit Job Goes Public
I fear that some of the Democratic presidential candidates are treading on very dangerous ground for the party and, more importantly, for the country. They are playing to the loudest, most active and most emotional group of supporters. My concern is that, without meaning to, they are exacerbating the difficulties of a nation at war.
- Southern Democrat Sen. Zell Miller
The anti-Dean campaign got launched publicly after December 15, when Saddam Hussein was captured.
Dean gave his major foreign policy speech – designed to signal a "move to the center." In it, he again expressed his own commitment to U.S. domination in the world – and talked about which "enemies" should be targeted and defeated.
But all anyone heard was his remark, "The capture of Saddam has not made America safer." This comment by Dean actually underscored the whole history of lies that had been used by the Bush regime to justify the invasion of Iraq in the first place – the supposed connection between Saddam Hussein and September 11 – and the whole hype about weapons of mass destruction. But the media and Dean's rivals acted as if Dean were a raving lunatic who could never be president.
John Kerry said, "All the advisers in the world can't give Howard Dean the military and foreign policy experience, leadership skills, or diplomatic temperament necessary to lead this country through dangerous times."
Joe Lieberman openly suggested he would not support Dean if he got the nomination.
James Carville said on CNN: "I'm scared to death that this guy just says anything. It feels like he's undergone some kind of a political lobotomy here."
This showed the extremely narrow limits of allowable debate that are being imposed on this election. The New Republic (Dec. 29) even announced that Dean was simply not religious enough to get elected, and that theme bounced around the media for a week.
On New Year's Day 2004, two weeks after the capture of Saddam, John Kerry was still being written off as a failure. Polls said he was trailing badly in both Iowa and New Hampshire, where the first primary contests would be held. But in the opening two weeks of January, the Dean campaign was driven into a free fall.
The term that finally worked was "unelectable." Every day, it was hammered home. "Dean is not electable." Democratic voters were told that a candidate who held Dean's views could not become president – so they had to "vote your head, not your heart." Voters were basically told that to defeat the Bush candidacy, their eventual nominee had to embrace much of the Bush agenda.
The rightwing press cooperated in this campaign. A now-famous National Review cover showed an angry Dean with the headline "PLEASE Nominate This Man." They knowingly gave the Democratic establishment a way to claim to the Democratic voter base that Republicans thought Dean would be the easiest to beat. Bush's January State of the Union speech targeted Dean's remarks about Saddam's capture.
This nominating process was not about "hearing what the voters want" but about "telling voters what to think."
Even after all this, Kerry barely won the Iowa caucuses on January 19. He only got 38% of the caucus goers. The difference between Kerry and Dean was tiny – about 20,000 votes. Meanwhile, one report said that 75% of those voting in Iowa described themselves as "anti-war." Nonetheless, Iowa was reported as a shocking, crushing defeat for Dean. Then the media delivered the final knockout.
I was THERE, folks. I was standing 20 feet from the stage. People were shouting the whole time – shouting at the top of their lungs, whistling, and clapping, rattling cans. Some were even using megaphones. Flags were waving, pompons were shaking, and feet were stomping to the point that the room vibrated. There were probably over 1,000 people elbow to elbow in that room that night. The crowd was so unbelievably loud I could barely hear myself think, let alone hear what Howard was saying. I saw his mouth moving, but I could only guess what he was saying most of the time. He was responding to us, his supporters out on the floor, and to our shouts and our energy. So don't trust what you read or even what you see/hear in the media.
- Dean supporter's weblog remarks
At his closing rally in Iowa, Howard Dean was filmed yelling along with an auditorium of screaming supporters. But it has been revealed in several media accounts that the sound of the shouting audience was technically stripped off by a directional mike – and Howard Dean's shouts, by themselves, were presented as a sign he was nuts.
This so-called "I have a Scream" speech was then played constantly (over 700 times!) in the media. Dean was portrayed as too "unstable" to be "allowed near the button." Many people who had still never heard of Dean got their first-and-last glimpse of him from this video clip on Leno and Letterman.
The liberal-democratic Los Angeles Times (Jan. 22) reported on this with hyped attack phrases like "emotional meltdown," "border-line psychotic" and "like a rabid dog." Other headlines said "Dean Campaign Implodes." But he was really taken out.
In U.S. politics, the ruling class can simply decide to sink a candidate overnight by declaring that some event or phrase was a "gaffe" and beating that campaign to death with it. Often the "gaffe" has nothing to do with the real reasons this candidate is being dumped.
The media campaign that so crudely distorted the "Iowa Yell" made Dean into a national joke. By the time the truth came out, the damage was done.
The AFSCME union withdrew their endorsement. Dean came in second in the January 27 New Hampshire primary, and his campaign was essentially over.
Kerry suddenly emerged as the "frontrunner" again. And, virtually unopposed, he won an almost unbroken string of primaries.
Kerry instantly tried to make the opening campaign "issue" the question of who is the bigger "patriot." Here's Kerry, who was in combat in Vietnam, and Bush, who went missing at National Guard meetings stateside. Kerry accused Bush of not doing enough in the global U.S. offensive – adding that he had his own approach of pre-emptive war.
James Carville remarked that the Dean campaign had "done a beautiful job of bringing new people into the party." Carville added: "How these people are dealt with and how the nominee keeps them enthusiastic is going to be a real challenge of political skill."
Inevitably, the media showed a public meeting between Kerry and Dean (March 12). The message was clear: Democratic voters should now get in line behind Kerry.
Angry opponents of the Bush agenda had first been offered Dean as an antiwar-but-pro-occupation candidate, and now they are offered the "anybody but Bush" track where the "choice" is between the candidate who voted for the war and the candidate who launched it.
Mary Lou Greenberg first wrote this article for Revolutionary Worker, a hardline revolutionary political newspaper.
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