Howard Dean's withdrawal from the Democratic primaries yesterday ends one of the more remarkable flameouts in Presidential history. But while the former Vermont governor won't be his party's nominee, he deserves to be recognized as the most consequential loser since Barry Goldwater.I think that might be a little too generous. And I have a different comparison: Dean was to the Democratic primary race what Ross Perot was to the 1992 general election.
Both men made waves with a cranky defiance of conventional wisdom -- Perot on trade, Dean on war -- and an appeal to the people -- Dean as the internet pioneer, Perot as the prince of Larry King Live. Both quickly gained a popular, populist following, then just as quickly lost it as the media looked closer. Both men wilted under the media glare. Both based their campaigns on the "It's just so simple" formulation. Running the country could be a breeze, they implied, if we would just do things their way. Neither one had much of a threshhold for listening to disagreement. Both were short, mouthy, and unscripted -- and blew up in unscripted moments (Dean and his vein-popping scream, Perot in his oddball ravings about Bush's vendetta against his daughter's wedding, or whatever it was).
Comparisons to Goldwater flatter the "platform" that Dean ran on -- centrism with an angry, poulist face. Goldwater rejected the fundamentals of his party -- the moderate, country club Republican Party -- whereas Dean is about as conventional a Democrat as you'll find. And Dean could, in fact, still play the spoiler role that Perot played; an endorsement of Edwards could still shake up the race.
The WSJ's reasons for the Dean/Goldwater comparison don't fly. Dean "almost single-handedly pulled his party to the antiwar left," they say. This is doubtful. It was clear from the start that the Democrats would split hairs to disagree with how Bush went about the war.
Dean "was the first candidate to call for repealing all of the Bush tax cuts," and all the others imitated him. Hogwash. Dean had to back away from his position when it proved unpopular among the middle class. The Democrats have, since 2001, taken the line that they wished to hike taxes, but only for "the rich." That was the concensus position.
"Mr. Kerry," the WSJ says, "has now adopted 90% of the Dean agenda and about 70% of his attitude. Oh, come on. Aside from the war, name one issue on which Kerry ever really disagreed with Dean. Their diffences amounted to: "Dean wants to nationalize health care in five easy steps; Kerry calls that rash and shortsighted, says at least six steps needed." Even if you do include the war in the mix, it's not clear how their opinions differed, other than being differently confused. Dean said we shouldn't have gone to war but, now that we're there, creating a stable Iraq is essential. Kerry's pretty sure he voted for something that said we might go to war but, now that we're there, why the hell should we put up any money without asking a bunch of damn fool questions people like Kerry should have asked before they stuck their damp fingers in the wind and voted accordingly.
I suppose it's possible that one day we'll sit around and talk about the Dean "revolution" that created the 21st century Democratic Party. If that's the case, though, I also suspect we'll be forced to note that the party he created went on to sport a half-life of about four days, only to follow the Whigs into history.