Friday, January 23, 2004

The Imperfect Storm

The Imperfect Storm, Dozens of local Deaniacs traveled to Iowa to help Howard Dean score his first big victory on the road to the Democratic nomination. So how did they react when their candidate got his ass handed to him?, by Sandeep Kaushik

My wife wrote to me about this story, suggesting that I blog it. She too is a Dean supporter, but not a Deaniac like myself. She has the feeling that there may be something off-putting to less fanatical, more casual Dean supporters about the true believers. She wrote:

Hello Honey-

I found an article that you'll probably want to put in your blog. It's pretty good, and it gave me some ideas that jibed with a conversation I had with Dmitry [Ed.- a coworker] today. You remember, he went to a Dean rally in Seattle and was very impressed, but today he said that the "cult-like" nature of the Deaniacs is a problem for him. We didn't have much time to talk, but I think I know what he meant. The enthusiasm of the Deaniacs is born not only of inspiration but also
desperation, and nobody likes to be around desperate people. Average people who get their news from headlines and sound bites probably feel that Dean is not talking to them (partly, I think, in response to the media's penchant for portraying all his supporters as part of Generation Dean). I myself am made a
bit uneasy by the near-rabid nature of some of the volunteers, including my own husband. To quote from the article: What pitchfork will you fall on when he loses?

In a solidly Midwestern state like Iowa, where liberals are viewed with suspicion and social norms are narrowly defined, the Deaniacs probably are viewed as maniacs. (Yes, I know - he's not a liberal.) I also suspect that the influx of volunteers from other states may have had a negative impact. After all, all these people from strange, populous, coastal states came pouring in to tell the poor, uninformed, unsophisticated Iowans how to vote!

I think the only way for Dean to get back on track is to back off from his cult leader image. The reason Kerry won Iowa is simply that he looks, acts, and feels like the presidents that you see in sound bites on the six-o-clock news. Most people are scared of radical change, be it good or bad. Kerry therefore seems like a "safe" choice, even leaving aside the issue of "electability." (God, I'm sick of that word.) It makes me sad to say, but it's time to get "presidential." Dean's a smart guy - I think he can do that without compromising his integrity. Dean needs to start showing the people what to expect, and to show them that he is going to be able to work the machine to make good things happen. He needs air time with state, national, and foreign leaders if possible.

What I am trying to say, is that Dean needs to say: "We've had our fun, but now it's time to get serious!"


I think my wife has some very useful insights. I married her for some of the same reasons Dean married Judy, including the fact that she's smarter than I am :)

To many Deanaics, Dean is more than a politician; he is the savior of Democracy. Such a role demands a certain zeal, a certain showmanship, and a larger than life personality. There is a virtuous feedback cycle which rewards Dean's more bracingly partisan performances. One can see the transformation we have wrought in Howard's style if one compares his public personna from his years as Governor of Vermont to today; he's barely recognizable as the same person. The change wrought in him from being the avatar of so much hope, and so much rage, has drawn forth something beautiful, and frightening to many: true belief. More than any other politician in recent memory, Dean exudes such complete conviction in the rectitude of his cause, such an utter lack of disingenuousness, that it is off-putting to some. People have come to expect, and apparently require, that a President be like John Kerry - equivocal, cautious, detached, even cynical.

People seems to think the Dean is less "Presidential" than other candidates -- polling certainly supports this view. Kerry is the top of the heap (86% positive) in terms of "the kind of personality a President should have" compared to Dean at the bottom (50%) among the 'viable' five, according a recent pollingreport.com NH voter poll. Clark, Edwards, and Lieberman all beat Dean in this metric. This is a problem. As lame as it seems, people want a President to be, well, kind of boring and a little phony. Certainly, the exact components of the this nebulous idea of "Presidential personality" need to be unpacked and studied in a systematic and analytical manner, but there really isn't time for that for this campaign now.

Dean needs to begin to re-emphasize that staid, wonky, steady Governor of VT, and downplay the rock-star. Judging from what he said during the Sawyer interview, that he was "not a rock star", he is going to move that direction.

I have maintained for some time that Dean needs to go to Europe to meet with Heads of State and/or foreign leadership. Giving people the opportunity to actually see him functioning in such a context of leadership would reassure them than he can do more than throw red meat to a crowd of angry Democrats. The best time would have been as soon as he started slipping 4-5 weeks out from Iowa, but that window is gone. The next available is right after NH. If he could slip out of the country for a bit before Mini-Tuesday, it could reverse the slide. The bleeding has stopped according the latest tracking polls out of NH, but Dean needs to rebuild his momentum. It is unheard of for a candidate to leave the country to take a foreign tour, but an unexpected move to break the pattern of press converage is exactly what the Doctor ordered. Done right, it is exactly the sort of move than can completely change the dynamic of the race overnight.

Though Europe may be premature, and too much advance would be needed, Dean could meet with Vicente Fox in Mexico to discuss immigration. This would throw a dart at one of Bush's pet "compassion" planks, underline Dean's difference from the field, blow a kiss up the skirt of AZ and NM voters, and give Dean the leadership profile he needs in a single quick stroke. In addition, Dean will be covered in part by the foreign press for his trip with some syndicated reports run through the American press. This might give a new spin to the campaign that is unaffected by the horse-race idiocy and the character frame obsessions of the American press. The move will be seen as audacious and unexpected and may recapture the imagination of the press, giving a them a good lead-in for a "rising from the ashes" theme.

The public needs to be shook out of its expectations and concerns about Dean's personality which the media, and Dean's own actions, have created. A defining moment, completely dissonant with the image of Dean screaming on stage, needs to be created to ground a more "Presidential" image of Howard Dean. Steadier and quiter public appearances, such as his performance at the NH debate, may do the job over time, but time is too short. Slowly rebuilding Dean's image with constant reinforcement is important, but unless the public quickly comes to see that Dean's boisterous rally performances as just a single aspect of a complex and highly competent personality, it may be too little, too late.

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