Howard Dean, the Non-Fluke

Andrew E. Busch

September 1, 2003

Sometime in the last two months, the political and media world has caught on to the fact that Howard Dean is a hot commodity in the Democratic presidential nomination race. In certain respects, Dean’s rise is indeed surprising, given that he is a relatively unknown former governor from a very small and idiosyncratic state. On the other hand, his current strength and future potential are hardly an accident, for several reasons.

First, Dean is the only plausible Democrat running from outside Congress. Senators and House members seeking the presidency have not fared well for decades. On the Democratic side, no sitting member of Congress has been nominated since George McGovern in 1972, and none has won since John F. Kennedy in 1960. Among Republicans, Bob Dole in 1996 was the first member of Congress to be nominated since Barry Goldwater in 1964, and both lost in November. Even Dole felt compelled to resign from the Senate before the convention. There are undoubtedly a variety of reasons for this record, including the rise of political “outsiderism” in public sentiment, the ability of governors to showcase their executive leadership in a way that is impossible for members of the federal legislative branch, and the daunting task for those legislators of having to defend a complicated and extensive floor voting record against focused attack by rivals.

Added to the general difficulty faced by members of Congress seeking presidential nominations, the 2004 Democratic race bears a striking resemblance to the Republican race of 2000 in the following way: In the preceding midterm elections, those of 1998 and 2002, the president’s opposition actually lost seats, contrary to all historical expectations, defeats which substantially discredited the party’s congressional leadership and strategy. This backlash triggered the resignation of the party’s House leader (Newt Gingrich in 1998, Richard Gephardt in 2002). In 1998, the Republican midterm election debacle also clearly had the effect of causing Republicans to look outside of their congressional contingent for a presidential nominee, almost immediately launching George W. Bush, Governor of Texas, into the lead. It is not difficult to perceive that Democrats after 2002 might have felt a similar urge to look beyond the Beltway. Dean was the only candidate in a position to capitalize on it.

He was also the only candidate who has successfully tapped into the “angry Democrat,” perhaps the pivotal figure of the Democratic race. This anger has taken two forms, one obvious and one hidden. The obvious form is the almost pathological hatred of the left for George W. Bush and his administration. For many, this stems from the election controversy of 2000; for others, from the administration’s prosecution of the war on terrorism; for yet others, a variety of domestic issues or Bush’s religious convictions. In any case, the hatred is palpable and a source of great energy for anyone who can harness it.

The subtle form of anger Dean has tapped in the Democratic ranks is aimed not at George W. Bush but at Bill Clinton. Here Dean must tread more carefully, but his appeals to “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party” is a lightly-coded criticism of Clintonism, under which the left wing chafed for eight long years. While Clinton reigned, the true believers were willing to remain largely silent; their many years in the wilderness had taught them the value of winning. When Gore lost in 2000, it became an open question whether the mere promise of victory would be enough any longer to subdue them. Dean’s surge would seem to indicate an answer to that question: No.

Another key factor in Dean’s rise has been his unequivocal stand against war in Iraq, a military action which most Democratic activists opposed and which most of the other Democratic candidates either supported or fudged. This point has tangible consequences. Prior to the liberation of Baghdad, there was in America a well-organized, sophisticated, and moderately large anti-war movement. That organization still exists; it wrongly considers itself vindicated and has a lot of time on its hands. Howard Dean is the candidate most likely to benefit from its mobilization. Indeed, his unwillingness to pursue America’s enemies, his fervent desire to make America as much like democratic socialist Europe as possible, and his general smugness make him an almost perfect reflection of the political class which serves as the heart and soul of the post-1972 Democratic Party.

For all of these reasons, it should not be a shock that Dean has, at a minimum, firmly established himself in the first tier of Democratic candidates and has a real shot at winning the nomination. It is too early to know whether he has the staying power to sustain his momentum for the next six or seven months (though it bears mentioning that he is probably the only Democratic candidate with a legitimate shot at winning both Iowa and New Hampshire). As many commentators have pointed out, if Dean becomes the Democratic standard-bearer, he will likely face an uphill climb against Bush. However, as Lyndon Johnson could attest, how one wins reelection and what one does with the victory can ultimately be as important as whether one wins. And, as Barry Goldwater and the conservatives could attest, sometimes a movement’s defeat is a necessary prerequisite to victory later. No one should underestimate Dean, or the forces he represents.

Andrew E. Busch is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.