Howard Dean was here last week, and writer James Fallows introduced him to a National Press Club audience as "the interesting candidate," which is code for a novelty candidate in the presidential bazaar. It's someone who is more likely to be fun than president.
On the face of it, Dean is pretty preposterous. He is a doctor from Vermont, a small state where he was a five-term governor and which has three electoral votes. He has raised $100,000 (New England rival Sen. John Kerry has $3 million), and nobody knows his name. But commentator Mark Shields says that when he speaks around the country, he gets more questions about Dean than about any of the other five Democratic contenders.
He has other assets: for instance, enormous self-confidence -- a fellow Vermonter delicately calls it "a doctor's certainty" -- and the gumption to say what he thinks in a manner he hopes will remind voters of John McCain or even of his hero, Harry Truman.
Democrats are, in the words of New Yorker editor David Remnick, "cowed, confused, incoherent," but not Dean. He speaks out boldly against the war in Iraq -- his senatorial rivals all voted for it, a fact that Dean stresses.
At the National Press Club, before a forum sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly and the New America Foundation, Dean gave a brisk review of Washington's mistakes, the blunders of the president and the blinders on Congress. The president is all wet about the tax cuts, he says. The $350 billion deficit projected does not even include the $200 billion bill for the war forecast by economic adviser Larry Lindsey, who, Dean noted, got sacked for his politically incorrect math.
The country needs health insurance, says the doctor, yet Congress is arguing about the wrong thing, the patients' bill of rights, which would not make the slightest difference because "it would not bring health insurance to a single American."
Using no notes, Dean strode smartly through the issues. On education, he derides Bush's education bill as "no school left standing" because it is all mandate and no money. On the war, the president "has not made the case for a clear and present danger in Iraq" and should be telling us instead his postwar notions of occupation in Afghanistan and the nation-building he once rejected. "We need an energy policy," he told the attentive crowd. "We need to discuss this stuff."
"Words make a difference," he said in discussing the Bush Doctrine on preemptive strikes. "We've done them before," he noted -- in Grenada, Panama, Haiti -- but by enunciating preemption as a doctrine, Bush had inadvertently encouraged the Chinese to claim a "clear and present danger" in Taiwan.
In a city where it is considered unpatriotic to question a paragraph in the homeland security bill, this is pretty strong drink.
The questions about Dean, called "Hoho" in the Green Mountain State, are: Will he be this year's new star who wins primary plaudits but burns out early? Will he be a slightly less eloquent version of Adlai Stevenson, whose goal was to talk sense to the American people, or John McCain with his "Straight Talk Express"? Will he just provide therapy for liberals whose only comfort is derived from "The West Wing's" lefty Yankee president, Josiah Bartlet? Liberals would have to swallow, hard, Dean's A rating from the National Rifle Association, but they might weigh that against his stand on the war.
"I intend to win," Dean says, which is what they all say -- except he lists his constituencies. One, of course, is gays, who are grateful for his signing of Vermont's civil unions law.
This could make white southerners see red, but Dean says those alienated could be balanced out by a showing by blacks, who he says "respond to my message that I want everyone to be free." One of his African American Yale roommates is organizing for the South Carolina primary.
He thinks he will appeal to fiscal conservatives, because he is the only Democrat in the field who has balanced a budget: He was governor of Vermont. He'll have doctors, he says. They would obviously like one of their own to preside in the overhaul of the health insurance situation.
A less defined constituency, and one that would not mind his deficits of fame and fortune, is that group of people who have a low threshold for guff in their political candidates. So far Dean is the class of the field in that respect. "They're looking for authenticity," he said.
We don't have to hear about his family either. He told Vermont Seven Days columnist Peter Freyne that he doesn't believe in bringing his family into campaigns. His doctor wife, Judith Steinberg, doesn't do politics.