Why Howard Dean can’t win

By Andrew Hammond

Howard Dean just announced that he raised nearly $15 million in the last quarter, effectively solidifying his position as the front-runner in the crowded Democratic field. But even if Dean gets the nomination, he won’t be able to win in 2004. Here’s why:

First, Howard Dean is Karl Rove’s dream candidate. Rove is going to sink his teeth into Dean the same way Lee Atwater (Bush Sr.’s campaign manager) devoured Dukakis: paint him as a northeastern liberal who is out of touch with American values. This doesn’t sound too bad to me, but it’s a red flag to most people not living on the East Coast. Rove and his cronies will make issues like gay rights and abortion central to the campaign, diverting people’s attention from the economy and Iraq. But Rove will do this for another reason—to scare the Christian Right into donating tons of cash.

Second, Dean’s experience will appear pathetic to the American people. Dean has been an executive, true—a governor for 12 years—but in a state of only 600,000 people. His supporters will say that he balanced the budget, which is no easy feat. I disagree. Dean balanced a budget that is smaller than the budgets of most major cities. It also is a little easier when the federal government picks up the check (the federal government paid for 21 percent of the Vermont budget during the year that Dean balanced it). Moreover, in the post-September 11 political landscape, it doesn’t help that Dean has no experience in foreign policy whatsoever. Sadly, if Dean and Bush were to square off, Bush would be seen as the foreign policy expert, giving the Republicans an advantage they don’t deserve. The fact is that Dean will be seen as a political novice incapable of leading the most powerful nation in the world.

Most importantly, Dean can’t build the electoral map necessary to win. He simply won’t be able to get the right states. It’s no accident that the only two Democrats who have won in the past 40 years have been Southerners. The Electoral College breakdown has not been kind to the Democratic Party in the postwar years. Democrats have seen their New Deal coalition of blacks, laborers, and Southerners disappear. African-Americans are being replaced by Hispanics as the most sought-after minority, and the Republicans have been shameless in courting them. Blue-collar workers are becoming increasingly conservative in their social values and the GOP has worked nonstop to pull them from the Democratic column. And I don’t even need to talk about the South. Thanks to Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the South is the bastion of the GOP and only a southern Democrat can tap into even an ounce of its support. For any Democratic candidate to win in 2004, they’re going to have to pin down the battleground states of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, and steal at least a couple of Southern states the way Carter and Clinton did when they won. Dean, regardless of his platform, won’t be able to do it.

But all this would be irrelevant if Dean were a maverick. Unfortunately for us, he’s not. If you’ve watched the Democratic debates in the past few months, you know that Dean is not the articulate pundit we all hoped he would be. His debating skills pale in comparison to those of other candidates—legislators whose career success depends upon their public speaking skills. But we could even forgive that shortcoming if he had the charisma of a Kennedy, but he doesn’t. The bottom line is that Howard Dean is not Bill Clinton. Dean can’t speak like Clinton and he can’t connect with the voters the way Clinton did. Dean could overcome his deficiencies as a candidate if he were captivating behind the podium and magnetic on the ground. But those gifts that catapulted JFK, Clinton, and Carter into the White House were simply not given to Howard Dean.

As a fierce Democrat, I want a liberal nominee, but I think we, as a party, are blind to Dean’s weaknesses and we ignore them at our peril. I want to depose Dubya, and the only way we can do it is to put up someone who will get elected. In a time when people care more about the man than the message, the Democrats have to play the game. Unless we want to lose with Dean in 2004 and give King George four more years, we need to go shopping for a stronger candidate.