Howard Dean says out loud what other politicians might think but never, ever put on the record.
And so, as Democrats prepare for their convention next week, Dean is unambiguous in declaring that despite all the praise he has received for starting a movement and changing the Democratic Party, there is one thing he'd like even better. And he's refreshingly frank about his ambition.
"Barry Goldwater said 'I'd rather be right than president,' " Dean said jovially during an interview over the weekend. "Barry Goldwater didn't know what he was talking about. I'd still rather be president."
None of this is sour grapes. On the contrary, Dean loyally heaps praise on John Kerry and even entered the lion's den by debating Ralph Nader earlier this month. Dean didn't pull any punches when it came to Nader's willingness to accept Republican help to get his name on ballots. "Your own organizer said in Virginia that you go to tractor pulls to try to get the signatures because they think they're doing Bush a favor," Dean told Nader. "This is not going to help the progressive cause in America."
Yet if Dean is still outspoken, there are certain questions he won't answer, because he doesn't want the press to discern a millimeter of difference between himself and the man who will accept the Democratic nomination in Boston next week. Ask Dean four or five different ways how Kerry should deal with the Iraq issue in the campaign, and the former Vermont governor demurs every time. "Nice try," he says on a last, rather convoluted attempt. His advice to Kerry is private, Dean says, and it will stay that way.
The revisionist history of the Dean campaign has already begun. In a powerful piece of reporting in the current issue of U.S. News & World Report, the veteran political writer Roger Simon demonstrates that Dean was never as strong going into the Iowa caucuses as many in the media -- and even in Dean's own campaign -- believed at the time. Dean's third-place showing ended his chances of becoming the nominee. The loss, not "the scream," is what beat him, Dean says.
Dean hadn't read Simon's article when I reached him by phone on Sunday, but he believes his campaign was doomed by a paradox: The ferocious opposition to President Bush among rank-and-file Democrats that fed Dean's movement early on eventually led Democrats to abandon him. "The most effective argument they made," Dean says of Kerry's campaign, "is that I was unelectable. And there was nothing the Democrats wanted more than to win."
It's interesting to consider in retrospect what made the electability argument work so effectively against Dean. His rivals for the Democratic nomination roundly denounced him when he said in December that "the capture of Saddam Hussein has not made America safer." Yet, seven months later, polls suggest that a majority of Americans now doubt that the war in Iraq made the country safer. In politics, timing is everything.
Dean is also amused that, given his moderate record as a governor, he was somehow seen as a radical. "I've balanced budgets, I've supported the death penalty in some instances, I got an 'A' from the NRA -- and I'm the most-left-wing Democrat?" Dean laughs. The labeling, he says, is a mark of how the nation's political discussion has been pulled to the right. "What passes now for 'moderate,' " he says, "used to be called 'conservative.' "
Which introduces another paradox about Dean's effort: Whatever his campaign's failings, it will be seen as a turning point in the way Democrats approach politics. Dean's organizational innovations -- particularly his success in raising money on the Internet -- revolutionized fundraising and helped create a mass base of small donors the party has not had since George McGovern's 1972 campaign. Kerry and other Democrats are also copying Dean's use of "house parties" to turn citizens into activists by bringing them together in a congenial, low-key atmosphere. Appropriately, Dean's just completed book on politics is called "You Have the Power."
Above all, Dean's rise in 2003 was a symptom of the Democratic rank and file's intense desire to turn itself into a fighting force. The higher Dean went in the polls, the sharper his rivals became in their criticisms of Bush. "I don't mind that people took the message," Dean says. "I really think that was good for the Democratic Party, and that it is essential to beating George Bush."
So next week's convention will belong to John Kerry and John Edwards. But it will be held in the political house largely built by Howard Dean.