By Ciro Scotti Poor Howard Dean. The Icarus of the Democratic Party is back in Vermont now with what drippings are left of his wax-winged candidacy. But, to torture this allegory further, one question remains: Did Dean fly too close to the sun -- or just too close to the power source of the Democratic Party?
The pundits of the Media Establishment and the jokesters of late-night TV would have us believe that Dr. Fury imploded, that he got so mad that he stamped himself into a political grave. Dean wasn't temperamentally suited to be President, they said, his message wasn't sunny, he was a loose canon, he wasn't electable, and the electorate sensed that. Yada, yada, yada. But was any of that true?
Yes, some of it. Dean blew into the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination as The New Yorker dream candidate -- socially liberal, fiscally prudent, disarmingly candid, and personally charming in a smarty-pants, prep-school-boy sort of way. By all accounts, he had been a good governor of Vermont. He was a country doctor, not a Washington lawyer/politician. He respected women enough not to drag his physician wife out on the road with him. He wore cheap suits and never had his tie exactly straight.
NICKELED AND DIMED. In another year, Dean would have been a respectable candidate with a sensible, eat-your-spinach message. And then along came Iraq. He spoke forcefully against the American invasion -- and stuck to his guns. More dangerously, he talked about taking back the Democratic Party.
Meantime, Joe Trippi, architect of the Dean insurgency, went mining on the Internet and tapped into a mother lode of youthful discontent. Dean meetups spread across the country, much as be-ins and sit-ins had in other eras -- only the meetups were a lot nerdier. And Web-driven contributions poured in. Kids and little people frightened by the Bush Administration sent in their nickels and dimes, and Howard flew higher.
As Mission Accomplished in Baghdad gave way to Mission Impossible and Mission Unnecessary and finally Mission Totally Fabricated, Dean soared. In the background, the Democratic powerbrokers shivered and quivered, and huddled together -- much like the Republicans in 1992, when the Buchanan Brigade momentarily threatened the GOP status quo. The man had to be stopped.
If party stalwarts like Dick Gephardt and John Kerry couldn't do it, then by God they'd send for reinforcements. And so in rode General Wesley Clark on a makeshift horse that looked suspiciously like Bill and Hillary Clinton with a sheet thrown over them.
AGAINST THE MACHINE. The big-media press, like the big-time pols they pal around with, didn't like Dean all that much (never got the genuflection thing right), but they liked the story and the excitement. A coronation ensued. In all the front-runner giddiness, Dean began to believe the dispatches. His message got sloppy. The gaffes piled up. And all the while the guru Trippi was spending campaign donations like Joan Rivers at a cosmetics counter -- and taking his big fat cut of media buys.
For a while, Dean was able to shake off the flubs, but he was peaking too soon. Left alone, he likely would have cracked from the sheer weight of his unconventional and badly managed campaign. That was too chancy, though. No upstart from the woods of New England was going to seize the self-fulfilling, self-aggrandizing, self-lubricating power machine of special interests, corporate lobbyists, New Democrats, fat-cat law firms, think-tank theoreticians, union pooh-bahs, foreign policy blowhards, and coddled Washington pols. So the Democratic Party savaged one of its own.
As The Washington Post reported on Feb. 11, a group called Americans for Jobs & Healthcare spent $500,000 on ads attacking Dean in the run-up to the primaries. The Post said the group was headed by David Jones, a longtime adviser to Gephardt. It said the group's spokesman was Robert Gibbs, who had previously been working for the Kerry campaign. And where did the money come from? According to the Post, disgraced former Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, a Kerry supporter, gave $50,000.
REASON TO SCREAM. Other money, according to the Post, came from Alan Patricof, a Clark fund-raiser, and Bernard Schwartz, chairman of Loral Corp. Schwartz is a longtime moneybag for the Democratic Establishment who had close ties to the Clinton Administration. One ad the group ran questioned Dean's foreign policy expertise and used an image of Osama bin Laden.
By the time the Iowa caucuses arrived, the attacks and the spendthrift Mr. Trippi had taken their toll. And then came The Scream -- which wasn't really a scream but just a weary man in a noisy room trying to rally his troops. In one wild night, Dean had been stopped. He hadn't been allowed to try to take back the country. And, more important, he hadn't taken back the Democratic Party. It remained safe in the soft, manicured hands of the Teddy Kennedys, Bill Clintons, Terry McAuliffes, John Sweeneys, and, yes, John Kerrys of the political world. And Howard Dean became Howard the Duck. Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online