Jewish World Review Jan 6, 2004 / 12 Teves, 5764
John H. Fund
Unintended Consequence: How Terry McAuliffe and James Carville created Howard Dean
A year ago Democratic leaders were
convinced a key to winning the White
House was to minimize internal bickering
and settle early on a nominee. That
candidate could then speak for a united
party against President Bush. The party
has gotten its wish--a jammed early
primary schedule virtually guarantees the
Democratic candidate will be known by
early March--but party leaders now seem
to be having buyer's remorse. The
nominee will be either the mercurial and
error-prone Howard Dean or someone
who may have a hard time exciting
fanatic Dean supporters.
James Carville, the razor-tongued
Democratic strategist, was among many
party leaders who were certain of a cure
for the Democrats' blues: "We've really
got to get a presidential nominee," he
said in February. "And the quicker the
better." Democratic National Committee
chairman Terry McAuliffe listened to this
siren song and helped engineer a change
in the party's 20-year-old rule that no
state other than Iowa and New
Hampshire could vote for delegates
Iowa and New Hampshire promptly moved
their voting dates to Jan. 19 and Jan.
27, respectively. That meant
holiday-distracted voters would have
only a few weeks to pay attention to the
actual race once the New Year's bubbly
wore off. That meant that for all of
2003, liberal party activists were in the
driver's seat when it came to deciding
who would raise the most money and be
anointed the front-runner in media coverage. That turned out to be Mr. Dean, who
tapped into activist rage over the Bush administration's war in Iraq and lingering anger
over the disputed Florida recount in 2000.
But while "Bush loathing" is almost universal among Democratic partisans, it resonates
with only about 20% of the electorate. Many of the people who don't approve of Mr.
Bush's handling of his job are turned off by bitter attacks against him.
So the problem for Democrats worried about Mr. Dean's electability and tempted to
derail him is that only two weeks remain before Iowa Democrats attend their caucuses.
The only candidate who has a real chance of defeating Mr. Dean in Iowa is Richard
Gephardt, who hails from neighboring Missouri and who won the Iowa caucuses in 1988.
But the money-starved Mr. Gephardt isn't a contender in New Hampshire. He will have
to count on either John Kerry or Wesley Clark to slow Mr. Dean down there and
therefore allow some Democrat a shot at stopping him in the Southern states that vote
on Feb. 3. If Mr. Dean wins both Iowa and New Hampshire it's hard to see how--short
of a political gaffe of megaton proportions--he will be stopped from getting the
Such a gaffe is certainly possible. But what worries Democrats is that if he is the
nominee Mr. Dean will make that megagaffe in the long eight months between the
selection of a nominee and Election Day. "Reporters tend to put candidates into
stereotypical boxes," says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "If someone gets a
reputation for outrageous statements everything they say is viewed as a potential
gaffe. Al Gore had the same problem when he developed an image as a serial
exaggerator in 2000."
Mr. Dean's gaffes during just the last two weeks of December prompted party leaders
to worry that a public impression of him as an undisciplined candidate was starting to
set in. First, Mr. Dean said that America was no safer after the capture of Saddam
Hussein. He followed that up by saying he couldn't prejudge Osama bin Laden's guilt
before a trial. After he was attacked for such statements he asked Mr. McAuliffe to call
on other Democrats to stop criticizing him. He then implied that if he didn't win the
nomination his most fervent supporters would take a walk in November since they are
"certainly not going to vote for a conventional Washington politician."
All of these led Democrats to worry that Mr. Dean was turning himself into a piņata for
Republicans during the fall campaign. "I know Howard Dean is the doctor, but I have a
prescription for him: He doesn't need to answer every question," said Donna Brazile, Al
Gore's 2000 campaign manager.
It was Mr. Carville who sounded the most worrisome notes. "It seems like he's come
down with a case of 'mad mouth' disease," he said of Mr. Dean last week. "He may be
candid, but there is the glory of the unspoken thought here." Later on CNN, he
elaborated: "I'm scared to death that this guy just says anything. It feels like he's
undergone some kind of a political lobotomy here."
Democrats find themselves in this fix--either nominating an unelectable candidate or
alienating his core supporters--in large part because they endorsed a quick rush to
judgment through an early and hurried primary schedule.
There's no way to be sure that a more leisurely and conventional primary process would
have produced a different or more thoughtful result. But it's safe to say that those who
thought a lightning-fast selection of a Democratic nominee would leave their party
better positioned against President Bush are having to relearn the law of unintended
consequences. One has to ask, who's the real political blunderer: Mr. Dean, who has
brilliantly used the party's new rules to his advantage, or the party leaders who made it
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©2001, John H. Fund