After three months of blissful cocooning with my newborn son, I returned to find the Democratic presidential contenders in an even greater state of disarray than when I last left them. Perhaps most notably, this summer's anti-Dean sentiment seems to have swollen into a barely contained rage, something fit for a Tarantino-style blood bath. Let's call it: Kill Howard. The more Democratic voters to fall under Dean's spell, the more furious -- and incoherent -- his detractors become. He's a paleoliberal. He's a heartless conservative. He's too naïve to beat Bush. He's too politically cynical to trust. He's a Stalinist. He's a neofascist. He kills babies and drinks their blood. And if someone doesn't stop him right this minute, he's going to destroy the entire Democratic Party!!!
Good God. Vermont hasn't unleashed anything this controversial since Ben & Jerry considered coating French vanilla ice cream with chocolate-flavored bullshit and calling them Bush Bars.
Perhaps the anti-Dean obsession I find most fascinating is whether or not the ex-governor is An Angry Man. Everyone from Gary Hart to Jay Leno has publicly mused about this aspect of the candidate's character, while The New York Times has noted that even regular schmoe voters at town hall meetings grill Dean about his reputedly short temper. This, of course, brings to mind all those hours that 2000 presidential phenom John McCain was similarly forced to waste addressing questions about his spicy temper. What gives? If this were 1953 and we expected our politicians to be staid, stoic, ever-reserved avatars of decorum, I could understand such a preoccupation. But in an age where we encourage our pols to crack jokes, make out with their wives, and get all weepy for the TV cameras, why the horror at the idea of a little PDA? (Public Displays of Anger, that is.)
For starters, it's helpful to separate the Dean Is Too Angry issue into two categories: the message and the man. At least since the days of Reagan, it has been an accepted axiom of politics that candidates with a negative message cannot get elected. Voters want someone who makes them feel good about themselves and their country. We want Morning in America, even -- or maybe especially -- when things are pitch black outside. Senator John Edwards, though hardly a disinterested observer, spoke for more than a few Dean critics when he recently whined to The Washington Post, "[Voters are] not looking for somebody who can just beat up George Bush. They're looking for someone who can inspire them and lead them."
I don't know, Johnny. For my money, someone who can competently beat up George Bush is just about as inspiring as I could ask for. More broadly, there is a significant difference between a dour, pessimistic political message and a vigorous but legitimately angry one. These days, a lot of voters are themselves angry. Maybe not enough to get Dean elected. But let's not confuse the downward pull of pessimism with the often very motivating oomph of anger. When you think about it, anger-bordering-on-rage actually served Newt Gingrich and Co. pretty well in 1994.
Message aside, I find the questions about Dean's personal temperament -- much like those about McCain's -- more interesting. What is it about a firebrand POTUS that disturbs us? It's not like a President Dean or McCain could single-handedly punch the nuclear button in a fit of pique. And it's highly unlikely that either man would really ever take a swing at Arafat or Sharon (though a few sharp words might be just what that situation calls for now and again). Surely we don't want some passionless drone occupying the Oval Office. If so, more of us would have voted for Al Gore. (Kidding. Kidding. Save your hate mail.)
That said, I'll admit to understanding the distaste for men who can't keep their cool. I myself have always viewed losing one's temper as a sign of weakness, a lack of maturity and self-control. But is this really fair? Who's to say that other, lower-key personality types are so much better? Jimmy Carter was about as affable as they come, and voters couldn't wait to show his ineffectual ass the door in 1980. George W., meanwhile, is by many accounts a petty, vengeful, angry man with an enemies list a mile long. The fact that he's learned to control his temper in public certainly doesn't mean he's not stewing over perceived slights (as anyone in the media corps who's ever crossed him can tell you).
And in some cases isn't it healthier to blow your temper and get it over with rather than to seethe with resentment for years? It's always the low-key, quiet types who ultimately wind up with human heads in their freezer. (How many times have you heard some homicidal maniac's neighbor tell reporters, "He always seemed like such a nice, quiet guy"?) My husband is quick to burst a blood vessel when someone rubs him the wrong way. But then he quickly makes nice and everyone is in love again. I, on the other hand, brood silently and keep a running tally of offenses until I'm so fed up that I simply stop speaking to people. Psychologically speaking, I'm much more likely to one day resolve my personal or professional grievances by means of a clock tower and an automatic weapon. But, given the prevailing aversion to PDA, I would also make the better presidential candidate.
None of which is to say we want some total hothead in the White House, someone who flies off the handle at the slightest provocation and goes around offending other nations willy-nilly. (Though, as W. continues to demonstrate, you need not be a hothead to offend nations willy-nilly.) But neither should we so fear an occasional outburst that we automatically disqualify someone like Dean. On the contrary, with so much to get pissed off about these days, the truly suspect candidate may be the one who always keeps his cool.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at TNR.
By Michelle Cottle