Tactics and Substance in the 2004 Elections GoogleNews: Howard Dean

February 22, 2004

by V

More Dean post-mortems

Unlike J, I'm a fan of the post-mortem article as long as it includes new information from people in a position to know things I don't.

This one, from a Vermont reporter, almost qualifies:

Howard's End [NY Times]
In Vermont, Dr. Dean was never a very good politician. He was quite a good governor. He was a prudent steward of the state's finances. He expanded social services while reducing taxes. During the debate over civil unions in 2000, he not only kept his word but he also kept his cool.

On the campaign trail, though, Dr. Dean was a dud. Here was a man with neither a thirst for the political jugular nor a sense of timing.

For years, Dr. Dean didn't have to be good. He was lucky. Though he was only a junior legislator, he got elected lieutenant governor in 1986 largely because no one else wanted the job. When Gov. Richard Snelling died of a heart attack in August 1991, the doctor most Vermonters had barely heard of was their governor.

[a recounting of Dean's relatively easy re-elections for most of his career]

For months, he drew adoring crowds. He was on a roll, and as long as it lasted, he was a good campaigner.

But he did not react well to adversity, perhaps because he had known so little of it. When the Rev. Al Sharpton challenged him about his all-white Vermont cabinet, or John Edwards criticized his remarks about Southern voters, he could have responded with a flash of candor or wit, which probably would have defused any controversy.
I think Dean would still make the best President, but I agree that he needs improvement as a candidate. Maybe he'll be back down the road, after he spends some more time on the national stage - if not a high-profile job in the Democratic Party, maybe a radio show on the new Democratic media arm? Dean does very well on radio.

A post-mortem with lots of new behind-the-scenes info was in USA Today this week. They got some staffers to talk, though not all on the record. A lot of it matches my impressions from outside the campaign:

USATODAY.com - Staffers fill in details of the decline of Dean
...interviews with 11 people inside or close to the campaign... reveal a chaotic campaign led by a candidate who disregarded advice; a campaign manager, Joe Trippi, who had little control over hiring or spending; and a staff lacking basic information about Dean's past. Among the most serious problems:

* NBC's report Jan. 8 on old tapes of The Editors, a Canadian public affairs program that regularly featured Dean. Dean was shown saying in one program that caucuses in the Midwest are "dominated by special interests" and "represent the extremes." An internal poll showed Dean sank 12 percentage points in a day. Campaign spokeswoman Tricia Enright says tapes of The Editors were reviewed, but that tape from Jan. 15, 2000, was not among them.

As recently as early January, Dean topped the field in fundraising, national polls and polls of Iowa and New Hampshire, the states with the first two contests. Democrats liked his message ... But many concluded he was the wrong messenger. They were driven away by his hard-edged, gaffe-prone campaign and concerns about who could beat Bush.

"He didn't grow as a candidate," says John Weaver, who was senior strategist for Republican John McCain's 2000 campaign. "Once he became the front-runner, he never understood he was in the making-friends business."

...Dean set his own course. He refused to get coaching to ready himself for presidential-level speeches and debates. He rarely read debate preparation books...

In the final weekend before the caucuses, [Tom] Harkin's wife, Ruth, made a breakthrough other Dean advisers had sought for months: She persuaded Dean to ask his wife to appear with him...

Canadian TV said it gave Dean a complete set of tapes of The Editors. Yet no one caught Dean's damaging words on the caucus system, nor did he bring up having said them. So instead of discussing his new appreciation for Iowa's caucuses back in July, he was caught unaware in January -- the most damaging moment possible. One adviser called that oversight "unforgivable." ...

"Every campaign running against them had more opposition research (on Dean) than they did," says Anita Dunn, a party strategist. ... "The candidate needed to rise to another level. The campaign needed to rise to another level," Dunn says. But neither did.
There's also a lot of big-media spin in that article that I left out, about how Dean's statements on Saddam were a horrible gaffe (gee, most Americans agreed with him...) and that he had an 'angry image' (gee, who promoted that?), but overall it was a good read. Weaver and Dunn in particular said things I've felt for a while.

In some ways I view a Presidential campaign as being similar to the training in Ender's Game: succeeding at one level means you immediately have to figure out how to succeed at a new level five times as hard as the one you just mastered. The Dean campaign made it through several such transformations successfully, but not enough.

Maybe next time (2012, hopefully).
Posted by V at February 22, 2004 09:20 AM

Be suspicious of sources, especially groups of them, who refuse to give their names, like in this article. Think of their motivations.

Posted by: Todd at February 22, 2004 10:00 AM

My impression--I watched a lot of C-SPAN, all of the debates, and a number of the interviews Dean gave--is that Dean is a fine campaigner when it comes to talking to people in the flesh. It's the media where he did poorly. This is more of a reflection on the media, and on the phoniness it enforces on candidates, than it is on Dean.

The debate format is worthless for a real discussion of anything. All that can come out of it is soundbites and gotchas. The better a candidate is at engaging in real discussion, the more unreal the debate will be. I don't believe I watched a debate since the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960, and I'm going right back to ignoring them.

Dean even seemed to me to do better in interviews where he was sitting at a table with the interviewer--David Yepsen, Tim Russert--than when he was doing a remote interview. He thrives on being with people. This is an excellent thing. Dean may not become president, but he can still do a lot to improve American political life. In the long run, a few hundred really motivated people will accomplish more than hundreds of thousands of lacksidasical voters who only know what they hear on TV. It takes patience--of which Governor Dean has a great deal--and tenacity. I don't have much patience myself, but I'm trying to stay calm, and wait to see what Dean does next.

Posted by: gz at February 22, 2004 03:17 PM

Bob Rogan responds to the un-named sources in the USA Today article... from Peter Freyne's Seven Days...


This is classier than the un-named sources' fingerpointing, IMO.

Posted by: Todd at February 25, 2004 08:43 PM

Recommended Reading:

The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity: A Diplomat's Memoir
The Politics of Truth... A Diplomat's Memoir

Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush
Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush

Against All Enemies by Richard Clarke
Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror

LIES by Al Franken
Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right

The Great Unraveling
The Great Unraveling

The Great Big Book of Tomorrow
The Great Big Book of Tomorrow

Clinton Wars
The Clinton Wars

Blinded by the Right
Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative

Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat

Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture

Living History

The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton

John Adams

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace

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