The Country Doctor Runs

Howard Dean was sitting in the lobby of the Harvard Club waiting to speak to a gathering of influential Democrats, and he was angry. “I don’t see how you can be in the Congress of the United States and take these nuanced positions that these guys have taken,” he told The Observer . The guys he was referring to (without naming) were his better-funded opponents for the Democratic Presidential nomination: Senators John Kerry and John Edwards and Congressman Richard Gephardt.

“Look at their Iraq position,” he continued, growing in intensity. “These folks have tried to have it both ways, and I don’t think that’s going to fly, because people are sick of trying to have it both ways.”

It was the sort of fiery, anti-Democratic-establishment performance that has earned Mr. Dean vast amounts of praise and attention in recent days, coming just days after a hugely successful presentation at a Democratic National Committee candidate forum in Washington on Feb. 21, in which the former Vermont governor savaged the party elders for a lack of boldness and clarity. His showing was the sort of thing that can make a candidacy: He was swamped by admirers after the event and earned glowing coverage from the national press corps. According to Mr. Dean, $10,000 in donations came flooding in through his Web site immediately after his speech, and his national profile had been boosted dramatically.

“Statistically, half the people [at the event] didn’t even know who I was,” he said, citing a poll in the Los Angeles Times . “I’d love to see what happened if they took a poll again. And there were an enormous number of super-delegates there. So it was a big deal.”

But now that Mr. Dean has gotten himself noticed, he may find that that was the easy part. His positions on foreign policy, the economy and health care, so refreshingly uncomplicated compared to those of his more Washington-centric opponents, will be picked apart as he rolls out his detailed proposals on each issue. (His position on Iraq already has invited direct criticism from the Kerry campaign as unrealistic.) He is unlikely to continue to receive the sort of uncritical coverage that has other candidates griping about a pro-Dean “double standard” in the media. And while he has proven that he can compete with anyone as an individual campaigner and orator, generating momentary bursts of great excitement, he lags far behind his opponents in fund-raising and national organization-building.

“At some point, you have to go from the outsider candidate to somebody who donors and primary voters feel is really electable,” said Democratic consultant Howard Wolfson, who saw Mr. Dean speak at the Harvard Club. “That’s clearly the challenge.”

Mr. Dean has done a number of things to distinguish himself among the field of Democratic candidates, which also includes Senator Joseph Lieberman, an unapologetic hawk on Iraq, as well as Al Sharpton former Senator Carol Moseley Braun and Congressman Dennis Kucinich, all of whom are opposed to the war. He has taken clear-cut positions on a number of issues that are overwhelmingly popular with Democratic voters and which are starkly opposed to those of the Bush administration. Democrats shouldn’t be debating the size of a federal tax cut, he says; there should be no tax cut at all until the federal budget is restored to surplus. Nobody cares, he says, about the efforts of Congressional Democrats to defend patients’ rights to sue: They should be concentrating their energies instead on the big prize, universal health care. And, most importantly, Democrats in Congress have no business claiming that they oppose a unilateral American invasion of Iraq if they voted-as all of his major opponents did-to authorize President Bush to take military action.

Such unwavering adherence to clearly-stated principles, he regularly asserts, is the only way that a Democrat will have any chance of unseating Mr. Bush in 2004. And because he has served as the executive of a small state rather than as a deal-making legislator burdened by a voting record, he argues that he’s the only candidate capable of sticking to those principles. “I think that’s the big difference between any governor and any legislator,” he said. “I’m not any smarter or better than they are, but I’ve had a whole lot different training. I fundamentally believe that we cannot beat George Bush unless we take bold, uncompromising positions.”

Of course, it’s not as simple as all that. On Iraq, for example, Mr. Dean has managed the neat trick of positioning himself as the only antiwar candidate among the leading Democrats in the race by implying that the “yes” votes in Congress by his opponents to authorize the use of force were, in fact, votes for war. This is, to say the least, an oversimplification. (It is particularly ironic that Mr. Kerry, of all people, has been so labeled, given that he made his name as a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War.)

Critics Snipe

This approach has begun to draw criticism from his opponents, who no doubt are tiring of serving as the supposedly unprincipled foils for Mr. Dean’s idealism. On Iraq, Kerry campaign manager Jim Jordan told the Associated Press that Mr. Dean wanted to give the U.N. “veto power over national-security decisions,” and that it was “an extraordinary proposition, one never endorsed by any U.S. President or serious candidate for the Presidency.”

An aide to another candidate blithely dismissed Mr. Dean after his speech at the D.N.C. as the candidate of “applause lines” rather than substance.

Mr. Dean, unsurprisingly, bridles at the notion that his positions are naïve or simplistic. “I have a very well-thought-out foreign policy which, of course, it’s in the best interests of all of the Washington people to pooh-pooh,” he said, adding that he had spent time talking to people like former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and philanthropist George Soros to help formulate his positions. “I don’t think that they understand this policy,” Mr. Dean said of his critics, “and I actually think this policy makes more sense than theirs.”

Mr. Dean’s foreign-policy formulation is the first detailed proposition that he has put forward, in the form of a 26-page speech he gave on Feb. 17 that condemned in moral and practical terms the Bush administration’s “reckless, go-it-alone approach” to international affairs. The Dean campaign will be presenting position papers on other issues over the course of the next several months.

As for not being a “serious candidate,” that’s an obstacle Mr. Dean feels he has already overcome, more or less. Of the stubborn notion that he can’t really win, he said: “People have started to stop talking like that after they’ve seen things like what you saw on Friday [at the D.N.C. event]. There’s not a lot of discussion like that anymore. And I have 11 months to straighten that out.”

At the Harvard Club event, Mr. Dean told a crowd that included Mr. Soros, Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman, Nation magazine editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and Congresswoman Nita Lowey, who organized the gathering as part of a candidate forum, that most of his opponents-excluding the consistently hawkish Mr. Lieberman-were hopelessly conflicted in their actions.

“It’s not the policies that are killing us,” he told his audience, who burst into applause several times during his comments. “It’s embracing every policy you can think of all at the same time that’s killing us. There’s nobody who’s going to support us if we do that.”

It was not just Mr. Dean’s obvious enthusiasm that won him the approval from the crowd, although his rapid-fire delivery and McCain-style bluntness certainly helped. It was his seeming willingness to give voice to their frustrations on a variety of important issues, assuaging their Democratic-loser complexes by providing a forceful antidote to President Bush that sounded every bit as doctrinaire and assertive as the President’s own fierce conservatism. Mr. Dean even turned some of his eclectic political philosophy to advantage in wooing his liberal audience-as he is frequently at pains to point out, he considers himself a moderate and has been assailed vigorously in Vermont from the left as well as the right-by portraying his positions for gun-ownership rights and states’ rights as matters of high principle, and also potential selling points in conservative parts of the country.

Mr. Dean’s message, essentially, was that the positions which Democratic candidates take is less important than the firmness with which they take them. “Our agenda in the Democratic Party is a principled agenda, but people get so scared when they see the President coming at them and the talk-show hosts that they start to back off,” he said. “We don’t have anything to be ashamed about in the Democratic Party, but we’ve got to enunciate it and not get defensive about it. I think the best defense is a very good offense.”

The offensive strategy is working right now for Mr.Dean -but is it enough? “He’s in the media darling phase right now,” said veteran Democratic operative Tom Ochs, political director of the New Democrat Network. “He needs to translate it into a real insurgency. And then he’ll have the burden of figuring out how he’ll get the money and organization to get over the top.”

The Country Doctor Runs