Dean of Candidates

However you measure it, Howard Dean’s ascent from bottom of the barrel in early 2003 to top of the heap by year’s end is an amazing story. Dean dealt himself a serious blow with his manic concession speech in Iowa, to be sure. After gaining a seemingly insurmountable lead in late 2003, Dean finds himself in a situation where even a victory in New Hampshire leaves him vulnerable to a resurgent John Kerry or John Edwards. Still, among Democrats, Dean’s unlikely success makes 2003 his year, no matter which hopeful ends up winning the nomination.

The political experts – who were unanimous in dismissing Dean’s electoral prospects a year ago – have settled on a neat explanation for his explosion onto the national scene: anger at President Bush and his handling of the situation in Iraq. The pundits helpfully explain that, as the Iraq war neared, Democrats rallied behind President Bush and congratulated him when U.S. troops entered Baghdad. But once the number of American military fatalities exceeded the number of WMDs found, and Niger overtook Cuba as the Angry Left’s favorite country, Democrats turned against Bush’s war and rallied around Dean, the most vocal opponent of the president’s Middle East policy.

The political class is half-right. Unquestionably, the American occupation of Iraq has been a boon to Dean’s candidacy. The former Vermont governor was the second greatest beneficiary of Operation Iraqi Freedom (coming in just behind the Iraqi people). After Baghdad fell, someone forgot to tell all the antiwar activists to go home. Instead, they flooded the Dean campaign, giving it purpose, enthusiasm, and, most importantly, cash. But there are three problems with this explanation for Dean’s pre-primary surge.

First, most primary voters did not change their opinion of Iraq in the fighting’s aftermath. The percentage of Democrats who said the war in Iraq was “not worth it” barely budged between March and December 2003, ticking upward from 58 percent to 59 percent, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll. But during this 9-month period, Dean surged in a survey of Democratic voters from 3 percent to 29 percent, according to a poll conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal. Clearly, Dean’s momentum cannot be explained by a shift in war attitudes among Democratic voters.

The second problem is that Grateful Dead fans are not a majority of the Democratic party. Most Democrats are not obsessed with Iraq and don’t want it to be a litmus test for their nominee. In a December CBS News/New York Times poll, only 31 percent of Democratic primary voters said they wanted a presidential nominee who opposed the war in Iraq. A combined 64 percent said they either wanted a prowar candidate or that it didn’t matter to them. Antiwar rage is not predominant in the party of FDR and JFK.

The third problem is that Dean’s Iraq policy has become indistinguishable from those of his Democratic opponents. By January 2004, all of the major candidates had coalesced around the same platform. They began by condemning President Bush for not having had a “plan” for rebuilding Iraq. Then they insisted we needed more Allied troops patrolling the country. Finally, they opposed withdrawing U.S. forces immediately. Hearing these talking points, debate audiences could not reasonably label Dean the “antiwar candidate.” And therein lies the explanation for the Dean phenomenon.

Let me explain.

In October 2002, presidential candidates John Kerry, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, and Joe Lieberman voted for the congressional resolution authorizing war against Iraq. Another candidate, General Wesley Clark, said he supported it. The only candidate who opposed the war resolution was Howard Dean, the obscure former governor of Vermont.

Dean’s position looked suicidal when American troops easily captured Baghdad on April 9. Already near the bottom of national polls, Dean seemed certain to rot there. But Dean did something politicians rarely do: He held his ground. Dean continued to say the war was a mistake. Newsreels of Iraqis kissing U.S. soldiers and stories about human shredders didn’t deter him from predicting that America confronted an awful “quagmire” in the heart of the Arab world.

The news media took the bait. Shocked that Iraq hadn’t become Switzerland in six weeks, journalists played up the “quagmire” angle. A Nexis search shows 145 printings of the infamous “Q” word in The New York Times and Washington Post between May and November 2003. The American people, on the other hand, weren’t buying it. In late 2003, support for the war was at the same level as it was in late 2002, when Dean’s opponents voted for the war resolution.

While Dean stuck to his guns, his Democratic opponents hit the panic button. Their political instincts told them they were on the losing side of the most important issue of the 2004 election, and that Dean was on the winning side. One by one, they slowly reversed their positions on Iraq (with the exception of Lieberman, whose campaign has struggled for other reasons).

There was only one problem: How could they explain their original vote for the Iraq war resolution? They couldn’t. And so, in the second half of 2003, primary voters witnessed the pathetic spectacle of seeing four men – Kerry, Edwards, Gephardt, and Clark – who had served with distinction in the highest reaches of government squirming and groveling to explain how they voted for a war they now opposed.

During the summer and fall, Dean’s opponents thought they could neutralize him by moving toward his position on the Iraq war. Instead, the opposite happened. The “leadership gap” widened. Dean looked honest and decisive to primary voters. His opponents looked dishonest and weak. Dean’s poll numbers surged. In the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Dean went from 3 percent in May to 17 percent in September to 29 percent in December. His opponents’ poll numbers sunk into the abyss.

Americans want their presidents to possess leadership qualities. It’s not sufficient for presidents to be familiar with trade policy in Djibouti or federal dung beetle regulations. They want their presidents to have conviction and act on it. The December NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked Democratic voters what is the most important reason they would vote for a candidate. Twenty-nine percent said either “vision for the country” or “leadership qualities, personality, and style.” Seven percent said “position on the war in Iraq.”

Democrats see real leadership in Dean’s character. He was the only Democratic candidate who held a consistent, unapologetic position on the most important political issue of the year. That may not be enough to earn Dean the nomination, but that can sufficiently explain his rise from political asterisk to dean of candidates.

As of this writing, Dean’s luster has faded considerably following a disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa caucus. Voters are beginning to entertain real doubts about his temperament. You can eerily trace the collapse in Dean’s poll position to his shouting match with a 67-year-old Iowan eight days before the caucus. His snarling, screaming concession speech has further amplified voters’ concerns. Dean may yet prove too hot for prime time. But his historic campaign has convincingly demonstrated that in presidential politics, leaders can’t be followers.

Todd J. Weiner is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.

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