Howard Dean has failed. In his quest to take on Karl Rove's White House policy of "politics first," he has lost sight of what should be the goal of every Democrat today: providing a clear, cogent, and easily understandable alternative vision to the entrenched Republican Party.
There is no Dean Alternative, only Dean Anger. Whereas candidates like Wesley Clark and John Kerry tell their personal stories about fighting wars and John Edwards recounts his struggle to overcome poverty, Howard Dean tells of his quixotic struggle against George W. Bush, neglecting to tell voters about how he skipped out on the draft because of a medical deferment and then taught ski lessons in Colorado for a year.
And let's not forget his past. Formerly a moderate from Vermont, Dean supported NAFTA, the NRA, and a balanced budget. He now calls for scaling back free trade, more gun control laws, and a hazy fiscal policy that has something to do with repealing tax cuts. And he maintains that his positions haven't changed.
Many of Dean's supporters have trumpeted Al Gore's endorsement. Many saw it as a coup d'etat, the ultimate Democratic insider endorsing the ultimate Democratic outsider. The reality is that it is an expected development: Dean and Gore's campaign styles are very similar. Both fixated on opposing their opponents and on a few issues (let's all say "Lock Box"), while neither of them bothered to define his vision for America.
Seven months ago I wrote an op-ed that examined why Dean had been so effective at gaining momentum. I argued that it was because of his willingness to get angry and energize the disenfranchised Democrats that felt betrayed by their party following the 2002 election. In that article, I argued that the next thing Dean needed to work on was establishing a grand alternative to Karl Rove's White House policy of "politics first" governance. He hasn't done it.
Anger won't win the 2004 presidential election. Neither will the cronyism and double-talk of George W. Bush. Howard Dean's full frontal assault on Bush will be just as distasteful to voters as will George W. Bush's blatant deceptions when it is laid bare for the electorate. The first words on Howard Dean's website are "Howard Dean stood up against George W. Bush." Contrasting those words of opposition are George W. Bush's words of hope and aspiration: "When government and landowners and conservationists and others work together, we can make dramatic progress in preserving the beauty and the quality of our environment."
Anybody with a working brain understands that George Bush is anything but a conservationist. The "Healthy Forests" initiative essentially gave logging companies carte blanche authority to clear-cut national parks. Karl Rove's ability to use language that appeals to one group with substantive actions that appeal to another group is astounding. The No Child Left Behind act has, in fact, left millions of children behind by forcing them to divert their energies and school funding to studying for tests instead of learning new material. But the name itself is amazing! How can anybody vote against the No Child Left Behind act? Doesn't that imply being in favor of leaving children behind?
The title of my column is "What's Next." And I'll tell you. For Howard Dean, it's back to New Hampshire, back to bashing the Bush-Rove-Cheney axis of evil. For the winner of the Iowa Caucus (Senator Kerry), it's the claim on the mercurial political characteristic of "momentum," and a boost for the next week of campaigning. For Karl Rove, it's basking in the double-talk of this year's State of the Union. And for this column, due out again early next week, will be my own answer for the question of "if not Dean, then who?"