It's time to talk about Howard and John -- no not John Kerry, John McCain. The pundits will be dissecting Howard Dean's rapid fall from front runner to marginal participant and then ex-candidate for some time to come. Dean undoubtedly made some mistakes including being sucked into the negative duel with Dick Gephardt in Iowa. But in the final analysis, as in any political race, the voters reaching the privacy of the booth simply wouldn't turn down the Dean lever.
And despite my own attraction to Howard Dean, particularly to his forthright critique of this misguided War, it really isn't so surprising. Dean is both candid and a maverick, two qualities that make for great news bytes but not necessarily electoral success. He says what he thinks and what he thinks is not always politic or popular. In that regard, despite the obvious sharp ideological differences, he is very much like John McCain. Howard and John are provocative, intriguing, more often than not, absolutely on target. Both are ultimately unacceptable in prime time. They entertain in the most positive sense of the word, they challenge in the most productive way, but they unnerve American voters because they are as unpredictable as events. Neither, to use a medical metaphor, has sufficient bedside manner to put people at ease. Dr. Judy Steinberg Dean may have done better.
Howard Dean proved to be an electoral loser, perhaps even more so than John McCain, but his impact upon the campaign in which he participated has been far more profound. McCain interested the public, but had little impact upon the candidate of his party. Dean, on the other hand, changed and focused the conversation in 2004. His single minded opposition to the War in Iraq pulled along all of the leading candidates, made them rethink their positions giving them the courage to distance themselves from the Bush policy. Dean did challenge his primary opponents, but his primary and most blistering criticism was always reserved for George Bush and policies that have set America on a dangerously wrong course both in foreign affairs and the economy. If Democrats are now fully engaged and intent on winning, we can largely thank Howard Dean for building the fervor and attracting minions of young people who have energized the party in a way not seen for generations.
Dean awakened hope — the idea that George Bush could be defeated — and ironically it was precisely that accomplishment that did him in. Democrats became convinced, as had Republicans four years earlier with John McCain, that translating this hope into reality required a different kind of standard-bearer. That doesn't suggest even the remotest similarity in style or substance between Bush and Kerry, only that both were perceived as being the most electable. In 2000 Bush had the support of the GOP establishment and the hard Right (of whom he turned out to be one), Kerry in this day of security hysteria, the compelling military credentials. Unless he makes a big mistake, it is why he, not John Edwards, is likely to capture the nomination. He'll make a fine President.