"It's over," a veteran Democratic player and Lieberman brain-truster announced to me at approximately 8:17 p.m. EST, Sunday, November 9, 2003 -- 71 days before the first donut of the Iowa caucuses will be gobbled. Howard Dean, he said, will be the nominee.
I'm not so convinced, though I'm getting there fast. The trouble is -- I am coming to that conclusion at the same time that Dr. Dean has really ticked me off for the first time. And my hissy fit has nothing to do with guys who have Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.
The cracker crack was, in my estimation, a gaffe and thus unserious. Everyone knew what Dean was trying to say and no one seems to think Dean is prejudiced. It was a phony flap, like most gaffe goofs. It was interesting because it may reveal that Dean has a cartoonish view of the Southern, male voters he will need to court most if he does get the nomination.
But like Dean's remark this summer that the U.S. shouldn't take sides between Israel and the Palestinians, this was a slip-up that shows Dean is not 100 percent programmed to use the vetted and correct language of modern Cuisinart politics. That's a good thing. It's what I like most about Dean.
That's why it's so infuriating to see straight-talking Dr. Dean perpetrating an egregious and calculated crime of doublethink and doublespeak. I am referring to the scandalously contrived propaganda prank to convince people that his rejection of public campaign funds is some sort of genuine populist rebellion -- a 21st century Boston Tea Party as his official Web site calls it. This is a massive act of political chutzpah.
I do not object to the decision itself. The odd and broken public funding mechanism now on the books is hardly a principle to be defended at any cost. I think the way Dean polled his supporters to arrive at the decision was flat-out brilliant, as so many of his campaign tactics have been.
But this was a mechanical decision about how best to win a series of elections and caucuses. It was emphatically not a populist coup d' special interests as a "Declaration of Independence" that fills the front page of Dean's Web site makes out. (And remember, that Web site is the beating heart of the campaign.)
Fully aware that these words are painful to read, I apologize for quoting promiscuously:
"When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation...
Today our government has become overrun by special interests. Working with President Bush, they have turned our government into a system that works for the profit of the few not the benefit of the many.
They have in the last two elections flooded our politics with over $5.1 billion in contributions.
They have walked into the vice-president's office and written energy legislation that keeps us shackled to fossil fuels.
They have written health care legislation denying access and affordability, and keeping prescriptions away from seniors.
They have purposely misled this nation into an unnecessary war.
We, therefore, the architects and builders of Dean for America, appealing to the Wise Judgment of the American people on our Intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these United States, solemnly Publish and Declare, the People of these United States are, and of Right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT OF SPECIAL INTERESTS and that as FREE AND INDEPENDENT CITIZENS, they have full Power to participate, deliberate, pursue the common good, protect their own interest from corruption, and to do all other Acts and Things which INDEPENDENT CITIZENS may of right do."
We the Dean-people hereby vow to raise as much dough as is humanly possible from whoever wants to shell it out and call it populism. Gag me with a bucket of Vermont maple syrup. Does he believe his own marketing?
Let me make sure I have this straight:
The $5.1 billion (where did that number come from, by the way?) contributed in the past two elections to both parties is dirty special interest money but the $30 million that St. Howard has raised so far is clean and pure because much of it came in small checks via the Internet.
Special interests started the war with Iraq.
Dean supporters and financial backers by definition are not special interests. Even though we are all 'special' in self-esteem obsessed America, and every group and person has an interest, contact with Dr. Dean cleanses all supplicants of fractional taints.
The big, politically organized labor unions that have just endorsed Dean are not special interests. The unions that back Gephardt, though, are special interests. Any organization that backs Bush is a special interest.
The money that George Soros and other benefactors have pumped into groups that assist Dean - and will assist him far more if he gets the nomination - is not special interest money.
You get the picture. This is no gaffe. This is a very wily, honed communications strategy unfolded over a long period. And it's doublethink propaganda. Dean should take the money, buy the ads, hire the organizers, and send out the mailers - whatever. But cut the holier-than-thou routine and stop trying to call a spade a diamond. You just can't call renouncing public campaign funding campaign finance reform, no matter how you dress it up.
Dean pulled a neat trick in becoming the marked frontrunner in a week that was supposed to be a disaster. He went from race-baiter to union darling and money-magnet in a few days and he got full marks for it.
He's the heavy favorite now because he's the only candidate to capture anyone's imagination in a big way. He has diagnosed the condition of Bush-haters and he gives voice to their complaints very well. He is a great candidate for a one-half of a polarized electorate. He talks honestly a lot of the time; he almost always sounds as if he is talking straight. He has the best organization, the most money and by far the most creative campaign. He is not a member of Congress, the greatest advantage of them all. He does not speak Senatese. He is the only candidate riding the anti-Washington wave that exists in all recent elections.
I'm not betting on him yet because he still strikes so many as the antithesis of what Democrats need in a general election candidate. He has the scent of a McGovern or a Dukakis or a Jimmy Carter, who won one and then - boom. He wears the uncomfortable cloak of a trust fund liberal whose sanctimony is unearned. Close observers describe him frequently as an ornery man with a boulder on his shoulder, pugnacious and unwilling to admit fault; he comes off that way to distant observers too. I don't think voters have his substantive number yet; people think he's very liberal, but his record is generally moderate and occasionally conservative. Yet he is branded by some of the cultural icons that may make more conservative swing voters he's not one of them.
Much of Dean's allure is as a straight shooter. But the cold, calculated and phony populist fundraising ploy has me thinking twice - as in doublespeak.
Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, is based in Washington. For many years, he was a political and investigative producer for The CBS News Evening News With Dan Rather.
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Against the Grain
By Dick Meyer