Iowa's Lessons
by Doug Ireland

January 22, 2004
First Published in Tom Paine.com

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The Dean movement was always more interesting than its candidate. It carried seeds of hope for the progressive left because it appeared to be coagulating a new, grassroots, alternative power center within the Democratic Party to fight its money-addicted, poll-driven establishment. But that movement was dealt two fatal body blows Monday night—once by the Iowa voters, 82 percent of whom voted against its candidate. And once by the candidate himself.

Until just days before the caucuses, the conventional wisdom held that the bigger the turnout and the more new voters, the better were Dean’s chances of victory. But half of the record turnout was composed of new voters—and they turned away from Dean. Dean’s legions of younger voters never materialized—their elders braved the arctic Iowa weather, but the kids did not. And Dean’s fabled "internaut revolution"? A prescient Des Moines Register poll released the morning of the voting showed John Kerry with a comfortable plurality among those using the Internet to help make their decision—and his numbers soared as the day wore on.

But centrist Dean—whose frequently self-contradictory anti-war stances and left-liberal economic mouthings were from the beginning more a matter of positioning against the rest of the field than of deep and thoughtful conviction—was always unworthy of the movement he’d sparked. And he proved it in his manic concession speech Monday night.

Dean looked like a mental patient on crystal meth: out of control, snarlingly screaming, vindictive (hollering that he’d beat Kerry in Massachusetts), verbally dispersed, his face contorted. He became the caricature of the angry, incautious wild man his opponents and the punditocracy had been decrying. This deranged performance, as one TV wag put it, meant it was no longer a question of whether you’d want this doctor in the White House, but whether you’d even want him in the emergency room. His candidacy cannot recover from this revealing, nationally televised, Nixonian moment. No wonder gentle George McGovern, a Wes Clark supporter, felt moved in a post-vote CNN appearance to pointedly underscore his "complete confidence in Clark’s emotional health."

Post-defeat, the Dean campaign blog was immediately filled with e-mailed recriminations from his own supporters, like this one: "We are what has gotten Dean to this point but people don't vote for us. And if I saw Dean on TV tonight and had just started watching, I'd think he was an angry, crazed jerk. Kerry's ads in Iowa were brilliant. Dean's were shallow and un-inspiring." Or this one: "Trippi and our insider people fell in love with our success so far and could barely talk about anything else. We care how far we've come. Regular voters don't care. They are not electing a campaign, they're electing a person. And when we made our campaign about ourselves, we forgot that people aren't frikkin' voting for US!!!! In the end, people LIKED Edwards and Kerry more...Trippi's not getting any more $100 contributions from me until I see that we're changing something." Dean’s bizarre temper tantrum, combined with his disaster at the polls, will begin to dry up his financial base as his checkbook cadres become disillusioned.

Dennis Kucinich, who ran as the "principled" candidate of a "new politics" similarly betrayed those idealists who had given his protest candidacy unexpected millions of dollars when he cut an "old politics" last-minute caucus deal asking his supporters to vote for John Edwards. Pro-Kucinich caucus-goers were completely discombobulated by this alliance against nature, as could clearly be seen on C-SPAN. A furious former Michigan Democratic County Chairman, a labor pol who’d been planning to vote for Kucinich, e-mailed me: "If Kucinich thinks so little of progressive ideals that he throws his lot behind a pro-war, pro-Patriot Act candidate, then why waste my vote to send a message, when voting for Kucinich no longer sends a message? Perhaps Kucinich needs some trial lawyer money in the upcoming congressional election." Kucinich’s decision can only be explained as a venting of spleen against Dean for having "stolen" the anti-war constituency the Ohioan imagined was his. The result: Kucinich has inevitably engendered cynicism about electoral politics among his legions of young, first-time activists.

All in all, it was not a good night for the party’s left.

John Kerry’s Iowa victory sends him roaring into New Hampshire, displacing Clark as the anti-Dean. But the Kerry whom Iowans saw in the last two weeks, and for whom they voted, was not the Kerry New Englanders know. The Iowa Kerry was a recent composition: he plagiarized the stick-it-to-Bush style and attacks on "special interests" that had motored Dean’s candidacy, and tried to imitate the effective, perfect-pitch populist appeals of the policy-thin John Edwards. But Kerry has never been perceived until now as a populist, and will voters who know him well—like those in New Hampshire’s southern half, who are reached by Boston TV—buy into the recently-morphed Kerry?

New Hampshire voters searching for "authenticity" in a candidate may well be receptive to the poor-boy personal story that Edwards recites to give "I feel your pain" empathy to his standard "Two Americas" stump speech, which he regurgitated so effectively in his on-message Monday night celebration of his second-place breakthrough. By contrast, Kerry’s inherited wealth and patrician upbringing undermine his newly-minted populist message—and his "authenticity" is hobbled for New Englanders by Kerry’s decades-long pretense that he was Irish when, in fact, he’s of Jewish descent, as a Boston Globe investigation—much discussed in his native region—demonstrated last year.

If Edwards had Kerry’s war record, he’d be my odds-on favorite for the nomination today. But does Edwards—whose sex appeal with women augmented his populist message—have enough time in just one week before New Hampshire votes to take advantage of his new-found visibility? Especially when his (and Kerry’s) Iowa bounce will be diluted by media coverage of Bush’s cleverly-timed State of the Union address? Gephardt’s withdrawal helps the North Carolinian with working class voters—but Gephardt was only in single digits in New Hampshire. Edwards’ is the freshest face in the pack—but will Granite State Democratic voters, hungry as Iowans were for someone credible to stand face-to-face against George Bush, choose the more skilled debater in the youthful-looking Edwards, or the craggy Kerry of the weightier resume festooned with battle ribbons?

Thursday night’s televised debate in New Hampshire will be crucial to the answer.

Doug Ireland is a New York-based media critic and commentator whose articles appear regularly in The Nation, In These Times, and Tom Paine.com, where this article first appeared, among many others.

Other Articles by Doug Ireland

* Nader and the Newmanites
* The Next War
* Will the French Indict Cheney?







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