November 10, 2003,
If Howard Dean wins the Democratic presidential nomination, everyone will say the triumph was due to his opposition to the war in Iraq. And everyone will be wrong. Dean's extended stay at the top of the polls has many reasons. Opposition to the war is just one of them. Dean also has a natural leadership ability and obvious charisma. There is another factor that I've yet to see written about, but which is a major attraction for many liberal voters. Howard Dean is the anti–Bill Clinton.
While Bill Clinton remains the most popular Democratic politician in nationwide polls, a good chunk (possibly most) of the activist base of the party wants to toss him like a threadbare pair of boxer shorts. These are the people who think Ted Kennedy is history's greatest senator. And Clinton is the man who triangulated away their dreams of an American socialist utopia.
The conventional wisdom that liberals love Dean because they sense that he is as furious at Bush as they are is right. They want a candidate who views the 2004 election as a war of Us against Them, of the Righteous vs. the Evildoers. But also important is that Dean allows the liberals to cleanse themselves of the taint of Bill Clinton. By voting for Dean, they can vote anti-Clinton and anti-Bush at the same time.
Dean is everything the Left hoped Bill Clinton would be in 1992, and nothing Clinton turned out to be. He holds the promise of being a president who is dependably liberal and uncompromising in his principles.
Dean is plain-spoken and honest. Clinton was obtuse and slimy. Dean was a wealthy urban kid who, laden with liberal guilt, voluntarily moved down the social ladder to maintain his principles. Clinton was a poor, rural kid who sold his soul to the highest bidder for eight years in the White House.
To the political Left, Clinton was the tall, dashing lover who swept them off their feet only to break their hearts and leave them vowing never to go out with such a creep again. Dean is the nice guy with sensible shoes who has them believing in love again.
No other Democratic candidate gives the Left the same feeling of comfort and safety that Dean provides. Kerry, Lieberman, Gephardt, and Edwards all are tainted. They are career politicians who regularly flirt with "the other guy," a.k.a. the Republicans. Clark is tempting. He is handsome and looks great in a uniform. But he was sleeping with the other guy just last year. Sharpton, Kucinich, and Moseley Braun are how does one say this politely? just not attractive.
The establishment candidates Kerry, Gephardt, Lieberman, and Edwards have no idea that the Left is looking for someone new. Hopeless dorks that they are, they think they can score by imitating the last boyfriend. Meanwhile, the object of their desire is watching Dean stride confidently by and thinking, "Hmmm, he's short and balding, but he is a doctor, and that anger is kind of sexy."
Starting in August, Kerry, Gephardt and Lieberman have gone after Dean, and each other, by claiming to be the only candidate who will carry on the Clinton economic legacy. This has contributed to some interesting poll results. "Since August, the number of Democrats who say they want a liberal to win the nomination has gone up substantially," according to CNN polling director Keating Holland.
And since August, Dean has extended his lead over all the other candidates, breaking double digits against Kerry in New Hampshire. Dean praises Clinton's economic legacy too, but he is careful to state that he would revive the Clinton prosperity by taxing the rich and everyone else. Gephardt also does this, but he isn't Howard Dean. He hasn't the charm or the lovable frumpiness; and he voted for the war.
Another factor likely to be overlooked by conservatives is that the angry Left does contain a substantial share of honest liberals. It is easy for the Right to demonize the Left as a bunch of power-hungry opportunists, but at the Left's core are plenty of romantics who get misty-eyed at the thought of an honest, well-meaning president who actually wants to provide health insurance to the poor by raising taxes on those evil corporations.
Burned by Clinton, these romantic liberals (and left-leaning independents) want a presidential candidate who gives off no Clinton-like signals. All of the other potentially viable candidates remind the Left of Clinton to one degree or another, and this sets off that inner alarm. Singer Mojo Nixon once called Michael J. Fox the "anti-Elvis" because he "has no Elvis in him." Dean is the only candidate who has no Clinton in him.
This is a substantial point in his favor, and one that the other candidates can do nothing about except hope against hope that the next bimbo Clinton is caught with is a doctor from Vermont named Howard Dean.
Andrew Cline is editorial-page editor of the Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News in Manchester, New Hampshire.