Will Voters Go for The Strong Medicine Dean Is Prescribing?

Posted January 31, 2003 at 4:33pm

Howard Dean is never at a loss for words. In fact, the former five-term governor of Vermont spits out information, opinions and arguments faster than a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cone melts on a 95-degree day.

[IMGCAP(1)] And that’s what makes Dean an interesting, if imperfect, candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Dean isn’t all that easy to pigeonhole ideologically.

Lacking perfect gun-control credentials and a self-described deficit hawk, he signed a civil unions bill as governor, favors public financing of Congressional campaigns and asserts that he wants “to move the party back [from the right] to the center.” He dismisses Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) as “a conservative.”

Dean has already turned some heads in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he’s signed up former Democratic National Committee Chairman Steve Grossman of Massachusetts as a top fundraiser.

But the former governor acknowledges that he won’t be able to match Sens. Lieberman, John Kerry (Mass.) or John Edwards (N.C.), or Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), in fundraising. Instead, he says he’ll be “in great shape” if he can raise $10 million by the end of the year.

Dean is overflowing with opinions — about health care and Medicare, Iraq, gay rights, the budget, taxes, the Kyoto accord and instant runoff voting. He is more policy-oriented (and idea-oriented) than many of the other likely Democratic hopefuls. And he is boiling over with energy. All of that is refreshing.

The former governor presents himself as a combative outsider — as someone who’ll tell you what you need to hear regardless of whether you want to hear it. “I’m very direct. I’m very unambiguous,” he asserts.

Much of this makes him potentially appealing both to members of the media and to many voters, including independents in New Hampshire. He’s the tell-it-like-it-is underdog who isn’t a prisoner to ideology or special interests. At least that’s what he wants you to believe.

If that is where the story ended, Dean might be able to start working on his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. But it doesn’t. There is more.

Dean, like the state’s at-large Congressman, Independent Bernie Sanders, originally hails from New York, and it shows. In style, he’s like a freight train. And it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that he has the personal warmth of an empty fireplace on a frigid night in Novosibirsk.

Confident to the point that some people will see arrogance, and so certain about his prescriptions that many will regard him as inflexible, Dean will need to overcome the fact that voters prefer their presidents to be likable, empathetic, even charming. Instead, he almost appears angry.

Critics of the former governor also portray him as a “shoot from the hip” politician who, while clearly bright and articulate, is full of contradictions.

For example, Dean signed a civil unions bill in private, without fanfare, but now talks about gay rights as a moral imperative. If the bill was such a matter of principle to him, why didn’t he make a big deal of the signing? His response, that the fight over the bill was divisive and he didn’t want to rub salt in opponents’ wounds, isn’t very persuasive.

Similarly, Dean says he is leading the fight against war with Iraq because President Bush hasn’t made the case for war. Of course, adds the former governor, he’d give Saddam Hussein an ultimatum if he thought Iraq really did have weapons of mass destruction. So he doesn’t believe Iraq has those weapons? No, he does believe they do. But Bush hasn’t made the case. Understand?

And while Dean talks about his success in state government, he would have had considerable trouble winning re-election in 2002, in part because the state’s financial situation is not nearly as solid as he implies.

Dean will need to come to terms with some of these kinds of contradictions as he answers questions from the national media and from Democratic primary voters and caucus participants. If he can, he will have a chance to stay in the game. If he doesn’t, he’ll quickly be seen as mostly bluff and bluster.

Dean apparently is trying to sell himself as a version of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Unfortunately for the Democratic hopeful, McCain’s personal story (and Vietnam experience) is very much a part of the Senator’s appeal. Still, as a former governor, Dean isn’t saddled with the D.C.-insider reputation, and as much as anyone in the race, he can tap a Democratic Party longing for a fresh face.

The Vermont Democrat obviously benefits from low expectations, as well as from a quirky appeal. Unlike Gephardt, who must win Iowa, and Kerry, who can’t afford to lose New Hampshire, Dean can boost his prospects by finishing third in Iowa and finishing second (maybe even third) in the Granite State.

So where does that leave the Vermonter? He’s smart and confident. He’s energetic. He has quirky appeal. And he really, really wants to be president. That’s enough to take Dean seriously and to see whether he can overcome his weaknesses and vulnerabilities.