washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Marjorie Williams

Dean's Loss Of Nerve

By Marjorie Williams
Sunday, February 1, 2004; Page B07

Political history will probably say, in its determined shorthand, that Howard Dean lost his last chance at the Democratic nomination when he delivered his primal scream on the night of the Iowa caucuses. Footnotes will also record a series of impolitic remarks, little blunders, during his final weeks in the sun. But the truth is that Dean's campaign was doomed from the day in December when he won the endorsement of former vice president Al Gore.

Put aside for a moment the question of why he thought Gore's endorsement could do him much good. By the end of last year, Gore was really not the Washington insider Dean seemed to think he was securing. The former vice president lost his key to the clubhouse when he so narrowly blew the 2000 campaign and then -- in part for admirable reasons -- absented himself from politics for the next two years. No, it was the mere act of wooing and winning Gore's imprimatur that doomed -- or at least foretold the death of -- Howard Dean's crusade. For it undermined the very premise of Dean's campaign, which was that politics could be about the voters' passionate belief in one man who hedged no bets and played no traditional games. The endorsement was Dean's capitulation to the idea that he ultimately needed the Washington establishment on his side. From that time on, he made a series of compromises, amateurishly executed, that showed a fatal loss of nerve.

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When pundits began arguing that Dean's lack of any visible religious commitment might make him unelectable, Dean threw away his prior unwillingness to don the traditional masks of presidential politics, telling the Boston Globe that he was a committed believer in Jesus Christ. As a New Englander, he told reporters, he just didn't come from a tradition of talking about his religion -- going on to add that he prays daily and has read the Bible from cover to cover. Worse, his discussions of faith tended to wander clumsily into the meta-level of campaign strategy: "Faith is important in a lot of places, but it is really important in the South," he observed. (Who knew?) As the campaign moved into some Southern states, he said, he planned to talk about religion more often.

And then there was the role of Dr./Mrs./Judith/Judy/Steinberg/Dean. For more than a year, Dean campaigned with no wife by his side to bathe him in some modernized version of The Gaze. Her absence on the campaign trail was based on principle -- on the candidate's genuine respect for his wife's priorities. This is a rare enough achievement in any ordinary marriage; to watch a politician practice that respect, even to his own disadvantage, was to see something truly new.

But -- oops -- even as he was barking that it was high time someone in politics stopped dragging his family around as "props," Judy Dean was beginning to make the rounds of Iowa. She has hardly left the public eye since.

A wife, it is said, provides a lens into the candidate's character. She "humanizes" him (as well as serving as a punching bag for millions of people who will eventually express their contempt for her hair, her clothes, her teeth, her possession of any personality at all). It would have been politically foolish of Dean not to bow in the end to the public hunger for a glimpse of his wife. But he never acknowledged that he was abandoning the daring premise that a candidate for president should actually seem human all by himself.

And finally, there came his firing on Wednesday of Joe Trippi, the campaign manager who had bottled the lightning that propelled Dean to front-runner status. It is common for campaigns on life support to fire their top officials. But the Dean-Trippi formula, which had brought all those thousands of believers together in a great online "community," promised a more personal fealty. And it didn't bode well that Dean replaced him with Roy Neel, a pillar of K Street efficacy and longtime Gore associate who ran his last (unsuccessful) nomination campaign 16 years ago.

Most other candidates' concessions to expediency are readily understood and accepted, by press and public alike. After all, presidents have to make expedient trade-offs all the time. Howard Dean's great strength and ultimate weakness was his claim that with enough passion, he could override this iron law of politics. Had it only been a pretense, he could have subverted it, here and there, as circumstances demanded. When a good politician gets ready to contradict himself, he embraces that concession -- dandles it in his lap, makes it part of his family, shows how seamlessly it blends into everything else he's ever said and done.

But Dean, from some fatal combination of inexperience and moral vanity, had to hold these changelings at arm's length, making even plainer the ways they subverted his entire rationale. "You have the power," he always told his audiences, in closing his stump speech. But in the end it became a campaign like any other -- driven, like so many others, by the power of untethered ambition.

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