Losing my religion

A novice political volunteer explores what went wrong with Howard Dean's campaign and, with guarded optimism, looks to a future without him.

Topics: 2004 Elections, Howard Dean, George W. Bush, Iraq war

Losing my religion

One windy evening last May, when Howard Dean was an asterisk in the polls, I huddled with a couple dozen strangers around a truck outside a Borders bookstore, passing a clipboard from hand to hand. I had never been involved in electoral politics before. I didn’t find Dean charismatic. I hadn’t thought about whether he could win. The Internet didn’t intrigue me. But I had two nephews flying helicopters in Iraq, I wanted them home, and I had given up on Democratic presidential candidates who had voted for the PATRIOT Act and made nice with Bush in the Rose Garden. Working for Dean was a way to get these things into the national conversation. He was a vehicle, not a destination.

Later in the summer, in the company of some of the people I’d met at the truck, I registered voters at an arts fair and handed out leaflets in front of a bookstore. In August (when 226,000 people contacted the Dean campaign) I ran Dean through LexisNexis, logged on to his Web site, and began to really like the guy. He hadn’t just opposed the war early and signed a civil unions bill as the governor of Vermont. He’d balanced budgets, extended health coverage to almost all the state’s children, and funded early intervention programs that had lowered child physical and sexual abuse rates by 40 percent and 70 percent, respectively. In Vermont, he’d been a political hybrid: a practical Yankee capitalist among Ben and Jerry’s progressives, an incrementalist, and a centrist who, despite his bluntness, just might make a plausible national candidate.

By September, I was part of an American curiosity — an Internet-driven political insurgency. I posted on Dean’s blog, e-mailed strangers in Houston and Simi Valley, and got back home-burned Dean DVDs and advice on where best to hold Meetups. Near the end of the month, I wrote a $100 check and found myself in a crowd of a thousand people on U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s lawn in San Jose. “There are more al-Qaida in Iraq now than there were before we started out, Mr. President!” Dean bellowed from a stone balustrade above us.” How do you explain that?” He looked as if he was about to pop the collar buttons off his shirt. He reminded me of a short well-muscled kid who isn’t afraid to get in the face of the class bully. Hundreds of people surged forward, reaching up their hands to touch him. This, I thought, is what it takes to win.

In late September I went to another party and listened to a woman testify about how well Vermont, under Dean, had taken care of her schizophrenic sister. I wrote another check and became the chair of a local grassroots committee. October came, and we succeeded beyond our wildest expectations. We won the money primary. Joe Trippi announced that we’d outraised every other Democratic candidate in history, taking in $14.8 million in three months, much of it in small Internet donations. More than 400,000 people had contacted the campaign and 223,000 had contributed. We were going to run campaigns in all 50 states. We were going to opt out of public financing. We were going to rival Bush’s $200 million war chest by getting 2 million people to give us $100 each.

The money was the outward and visible sign of a deeper change: The virtual world was going to restore the sense of civic community that George W. Bush had helped kill. Thousands of people like me were going to relearn a political grammar forgotten since the 1970s, when television advertising first trumped retail politics, eclipsed traditional block-by-block precinct organizing, and locked almost everyone but campaign professionals out of what they called “the process.” The Democratic Party had become a hollowed-out shell, dependent on big money from Hollywood and labor unions. Dean had brought life back in: a huge, savvy force of volunteers and small donors capable of challenging corporate money, the Christian right, and the cynical political image-making parodied in movies like “The Candidate.” Dean wasn’t just thinking outside the box. He was changing its shape.

I’m not sure exactly what day it happened, but sometime during that September and October, I forgot that I’d stood at that truck near a Borders bookstore on a windy May evening for something bigger than candidate Dean. I got fascinated by us — the campaign, its explosive growth, the money, the story, and the growing likelihood, given the polls and the traffic on the blogsite, that our candidate might actually win.

The end of October came, and Dean registered 40 percent to Kerry’s 17 percent in the Zogby New Hampshire poll. I wrote another check. At a Meetup, I wrote letters to two strangers in Iowa and to a woman in rural New Mexico. December came, and one of my military nephews came home on leave, returning to Iraq a week after his first child was born. Gore endorsed Dean, who drew neck and neck with Gephardt in Iowa polls. Some days I’d spend an hour on the blog before getting out of my nightgown. I exercised less. The man I live with started calling me Mrs. Dean. When you get religion, you stop hearing the everyday noises of life outside you — even the alarm clock — and hear only the story you’re telling yourself.

January came. Dean made the cover of Newsweek, Time and Rolling Stone. Everyone called him the front-runner. But he dropped slightly in the Iowa polls, and even though the campaign continued to meet fundraising goals, we weren’t attracting as many new volunteers. We were talking less and less to strangers and more and more to each other. No matter: I got an e-mail asking me to be part of an irresistible convergence of forces, a project nicknamed “The Perfect Storm” that would bring 3,500 volunteers into Iowa to canvas door to door. I signed up online, pulled out my long underwear, bought a ticket to Des Moines, and persuaded a friend to join me. Though I’d never knocked on a single California neighbor’s door, I wasn’t too shy to fly 2,000 miles to knock on the doors of strangers.

I’d assumed that Des Moines would be a cow town, but I found something more like Flint, Mich. — acre after acre of bungalows once kept painted and proud by union jobs in factories that built John Deere tractors, Amana refrigerators and Maytag washers — factories and jobs now long gone overseas. My computerized voter lists showed many a couple in their 70s with a 30- or 40-year-old son living at home.

One man peered out from a door in his underwear and said, “I’ve got two words for you: George Bush.” Others tottered out on walkers as I stood at their open doors, asking them to drive to the caucuses that coming Monday night in 8-degree weather. One woman couldn’t go because she took care of an autistic grandson while her daughter worked. Others said they’d be at a second job, or at night school. A man with long glossy hair and a thousand-mile stare told me he was a felon and couldn’t vote. A Mexican-Apache-American man with a cross tattooed between his eyebrows preferred to talk about the prophetic dreams he’d had — dreams he didn’t want to have — that had saved his life. In an apartment building filled with the refugees of every possible war — Somalis, Boznians, Albanians — two Liberian immigrants told us they would caucus for Dean. “He’s not afraid,” one said. “He’s bold.”

On my first night in Iowa, in a bunk in a winterized youth camp, I dreamed that Dean would lose, and lose badly. Something had gelled against him before I’d even gotten there. I picked up my orange volunteer cap the next morning and realized for the first time how its “Perfect Storm” logo would read to someone living through a long Iowa winter. I’d gotten involved in the Dean campaign because Washington, D.C., was an echo chamber, but I’d helped build one myself. I turned the logo to the back, and put the cap on. I needed it in the bitter cold.

The script we’d been given by interns in their 20s at the headquarters downtown had suggested that we tell Iowans how many miles we’d flown to talk to them, but credibility may be inversely proportional to the physical distance between two people’s homes. Knocking on doors in Des Moines for six days cured me of the delusion that we could weave a community — or even an efficient precinct organization — out of e-mails and blog posts from virtual strangers, people whose hands I would never shake, whose faces I would never see. All politics, said the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, is local. Des Moines taught me that it is visceral as well. The virtual world can transmit a message in an instant, but only flesh-and-blood people — neighbors talking to neighbors — can rebuild civic life. When one of my co-canvassers told a Des Moines man that she’d taken a week off from her job in California, he said to her, “I wish I could afford to do that.”

That said, it wasn’t talking to strangers in Des Moines for six days that made me lose my religion. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, I felt privileged to be there, to take part in a democratic ritual, and to listen and talk with other Americans about the war in Iraq and the necessity of defeating Bush. Just as long as they voted, I didn’t really care who they planned to vote for.

I lost my religion listening, twice, to my candidate.

I heard him first in a hall at the Des Moines fairgrounds four days before the caucuses. I was there to wave a sign, to be part of the breathing wallpaper for the TV cameras. Dean was introduced by longtime Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, whose speech was full of references to “Washington insiders” and “special interests.” It contained none of the political complexity I’d inferred from Dean’s record in Vermont, or even his earlier speeches. Dean looked tired. He spoke, as usual, at full throttle. He reached to the hands that reached up to him, but now it was obvious to me that he was touching the hands of the converted. He wasn’t campaigning like someone wooing — and given the response I’d gotten on the streets, that surprised me. On television, I’d seen John Edwards speaking conversationally, as though he were a guest in somebody else’s living room, speaking as though to one person. Dean talked to multitudes and not to me.

The Monday night after the caucus returns came in, I stood in the Val-Air ballroom in West Des Moines with thousands of other Dean volunteers waiting for Dean to speak. There were no television monitors, and news of our stunning defeat traveled quietly from supporter to supporter through the crowd. Harkin once again introduced our candidate and talked about the special interest boys. Dean took the microphone. It wasn’t his so-called scream that bothered me. I never heard it above the roar of the crowd. What disappointed me was that neither he nor Harkin really referred to what had happened. I had been drawn to Dean by his honesty and his realism. I wanted to hear him say, “I know you’re disappointed. I am, too.” I got another version of his stump speech.

I picked up one of the little American flags someone had handed out for us to wave, but I didn’t want to be a piece of the scenery anymore. I wanted to be treated with the connection and respect that I had think the Iowans had wanted from me. I waved a little, and then crossed my arms and stood unmoving and silent in the roaring crowd, a stranger among strangers. I felt far more alone that night than I had in six days in southeast Des Moines, knocking on doors.

I got up before dawn the next morning and got on my plane. My two nephews are still alive, but while I was in Iowa, the 500th and the 501st and the 502nd and the 503rd U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq. As my plane took off, I didn’t know how thoroughly Dean had been caught in the perfect storm far beyond his own making —- that he would place a distant second in New Hampshire, be forced to pull resources out of South Carolina, Arizona and New Mexico, fire Joe Trippi, and reveal that his campaign had bet the farm on the first two states — and lost.

I came home unsure of what to do. Dean is still my candidate. A few days ago, I logged on to DeanforAmerica.com, hit a few keys, and sent the campaign another $100. I am still moved by what Dean did in Vermont and I still prefer him to any candidate who voted for the Iraq War and is now trying to finesse it. But Dean has not found the words to describe an alternative American future. He doesn’t seem to have another gear. As the primaries roll on, there may not be time to retool. I do not even know if he will last long enough for me to vote for him in the California primary in early March. For a while, I’d been part of a successful political insurgency that was rewriting the rules of campaigning. Now it looks as though I’m part of one more army going down.

But if I disconnect my sense of identity from Dean’s winning and losing, I can win even if my candidate loses. I stood outside that truck last May to get some topics into the national conversation and to stop Democrats from acting like chameleons on plaid. In those terms, we in the Dean campaign have already succeeded beyond our wildest imagination.

Attendance at the Iowa caucuses doubled, and 55 percent of those who came were newcomers, even though most of them didn’t vote for Dean. Among them might have been two men from Liberia, or the Denny’s waitress whose caucus location I found, or a young African-American man of 18 who talked to us in outrage about children dying in Iraq. The day after the caucuses, the Iowa Poll announced that 75 percent opposed the war in Iraq — a stunning figure given that 70 percent approved last May, when George Bush was prancing around in a borrowed flight suit. Other Democratic candidates have miraculously developed spines and stolen Dean’s best lines. Kerry is looking astonishingly lifelike and even Christian radio predicts the general election will be close.

As for Internet organizing, we’re clearly still beta-testing, learning what it can and can’t do. The Dean campaign shows that Web sites can get a political campaign rolling by hooking up like-minded people through devices like Meetup.com. It can efficiently raise millions of dollars from small donors like me. It can’t, by itself, extrapolate those beginnings into an efficient traditional precinct organization. It can’t help grassroots neophytes connect in a credible way with existing social and political networks in their own communities. It can’t create human connections strong enough to survive more than 600 televised repetitions of a man yelling too loud. It took us somewhere, and it showed us how much further we have to go.

It’s time I got off the keyboard and walked next door.

Katy Butler is a freelance writer based in Marin County, Calif.

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