My big fat mea culpa

I haven't decided to vote for Howard Dean, but after 10 days watching his campaign, I promise never to say he's unelectable again.

Published August 11, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

It was just before 7 last Wednesday night, right after Arnold Schwarzenegger transformed the California recall election from a fiasco into a certified freak show (OK, Gary Coleman and Larry Flynt helped). I needed a drink, as well as a reason not to give up on democracy. Luckily I was in the right place to get both: one of nearly 500 local "Meetups" held nationwide for supporters of presidential candidate Howard Dean.

Mine was at The Plough and the Stars pub in San Francisco's Richmond district. On this gorgeous summer night, a standing-room-only crowd of roughly 150 people packed the steamy bar, not to listen to its trademark Irish music but to starry-eyed local activists talking about the former governor of Vermont. I know, I know, a crowded pub of groovy San Franciscans for Dean isn't a man bites dog kind of story -- that's exactly who everybody thinks is turning out for him, and why many people have written him off -- but pay attention anyway.

My venture into the world of Dean Meetups was my big fat mea culpa: Two weeks ago I whacked the Democratic Leadership Council for bashing Dean as too "far left" to beat George Bush. But I took a shot at Dean, too, saying I thought Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was more electable. As usual, whenever you diminish Dean (or say something nice about another Democrat, especially Kerry), I got spammed by Dean's vast army of netizens. Some were nasty, most were nice. Several invited me to Dean Meetups in their town, so I could see firsthand the way the good doctor was resuscitating democracy. The Meetups are just one component of Dean's famous Internet strategy: Using the for-profit, which helps anyone who registers (Bill O'Reilly fans, cat lovers, Wiccans) locate like-minded local folks and find a place to get together, Dean supporters have put together thousands of these combination house parties and town-hall meetings over the last eight months and registered more than 80,000 people. I became one of them: I registered, I found a local Dean Meetup; I RSVP'd.

It just so happened that the week I decided to investigate the Dean phenomenon firsthand was the week the former Vermont governor jumped from whiny unelectable protest candidate to the frontrunner among likely voters, in some polls anyway, in Iowa, New Hampshire and California. He was gracing the cover of both Time and Newsweek, just like, that's right, Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen's 1975 Time-Newsweek score is every baby-boomer's association with that P.R. feat -- although lots of other folks have done it, from Liza Minelli to Steve Forbes -- and the odd media convergence served to warn me against the swoon, the delicious danger of declaring someone "the future of" whatever, rock 'n' roll (as in Jon Landau's famous take on Springsteen, which even the great one himself never really lived up to) or the Democratic Party. The Time-Newsweek covers served to make me appropriately wary of hyperbole and the whole world of media hype -- OK, my world -- that elevates people semi-capriciously (Steve Forbes?) only to have them handy to knock down again.

Of course last week's Dean hype managed to do both at once. It knocked him down by setting him up, in a way. No longer was the question "Is he too liberal to be electable?" Reporters belatedly scoured his record and discovered a fiscal conservative who put balanced budgets before social spending in Vermont, who opposes federal gun control legislation and backs the death penalty for certain crimes. Now the make-or-break question about Dean became: "Will liberals desert him when they figure out that he's actually a moderate?" Then came other pre-fab worries about the problems of sudden success: Had Dean peaked too soon? Could his fledgling campaign handle the attention? And OK, maybe he was moderate enough to be electable, but was he likable enough? Was his reputation for "straight talk" just a euphemism for brusque and arrogant?

Hanging out with the local Dean folks was my way of getting out of what his campaign dismisses as "the media echo chamber," and trying to figure out what's really going on. I've lived here almost 20 years. I know the San Francisco Dean phenomenon is not a microcosm of what it will take to get him elected; I saw the way the GOP smeared House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi -- and pushed her to the center some -- by calling her a "San Francisco Democrat" before she even took over the leadership post. I know we're DLC founder Al From's worst nightmare. But I also saw some intriguing things following Dean around San Francisco at the end of July, and talking to his supporters the week after he'd gone. The Bay Area Dean machine is attracting more than the usual suspects: It's neither the Greens nor the City Hall regulars; it's neither the moneyed elite nor the rabble; it's not just the young and the hip; it's not ponytailed '60s holdovers -- it's all of them, and then some. I met Republicans and Ross Perot voters who were supporting the antiwar candidate who promises to repeal Bush's tax cuts. And I met Dean himself, and watched two speeches. You can't get his charisma without seeing him in person.

And yet ... I'm not writing to endorse Howard Dean. I'm not declaring him the future of the Democratic Party. I still like John Kerry, too. Honest. In fact, I've adopted what I'm calling the Donna Brazile stance. When I phoned the veteran liberal activist and 2000 Gore campaign manager to talk about Dean, she just raved about him. I pushed her: "Wow, Donna, you sound like you love the guy -- are you sure you're not backing him? Are you going to work for him?" I even asked if she wanted to talk off the record.

She stopped me cold. "You called me to talk about Howard Dean. If you'd called to talk about Joe Lieberman, I'd have raved about him, too. I'm finding something to love about all these candidates. One of them is going to defeat George Bush."

So that's how I feel, too, I think. I can support anyone who gets the nomination (which means I don't have to square Al Sharpton's new charisma and common sense with his race-baiting history, or ask myself if I could live with Dennis Kucinich's self-righteous lefty screeching for four years, because they're not going to be nominated).

But Donna Brazile had a twinkle in her voice when she talked about Howard Dean, I thought. Or maybe that was just projection. Maybe it was my twinkle.

I caught up with Dean, literally (I had to chase him down the street after a speech to the United Food and Commercial Workers convention) on July 31, a couple of days after the DLC had whacked him. Sen. Joe Lieberman, who gets his talking points from Al From, was taking the gloves off, too. He denounced Dean's candidacy as "a ticket to nowhere," and made himself a late-night talk-show punch line. "At least Lieberman will have someone to ride with now," Jay Leno quipped. Ouch.

Even before Leno took his side in the debate, Dean told me the DLC's attacks didn't bother him. "I don't respond to that stuff," he shrugged. "For one thing, every time they do it, I raise a ton of money."

I told him about the e-mail spanking I'd gotten from his supporters after calling Kerry more electable. He apologized, sort of. "That's not my campaign, you know that?" Oh yes, I told him, I was familiar with his rowdy Internet following. He was understandably proud of it. "The key to winning is turning out 3-4 million people who didn't vote last time around," he explained.

I've heard that before, I shot back. I knew I only had a short time with Dean, so I poured my heart out. I want to believe you, I said, but I've heard Democrats talk about that since 1984, when I was covering the NAACP's Operation Big Vote and HumanServe and the Women's Vote Project, and nobody's ever done it. How do you make it happen? He just smiled and said: "We'll see." Then a harried staffer told me I was making him late for a pre-scheduled media telephone interview, and could I please call the press office in Vermont and set up some phone time of my own? I said sure, and she handed him a cellphone to talk to the waiting reporter. Howard Dean said goodbye and took off without me.

What did I learn? I got enough to let me refute some of the latest media stereotypes about him. He was pretty nice to me for a brusque guy some folks call "mean," given I approached him with a lot of skepticism and I didn't have a scheduled interview. He's, um, a little bit short -- I don't care, but other people bring it up! -- but you forget about it quickly, especially when you're having to run to keep up with his energetic wrestler's stride. He's also sort of ... sexy, which I mention because it counteracts the associations folks have with short, which is supposedly not charismatic or presidential, and also probably because I'm shallow.

Of course, I wanted to know much more, but that's all I can say about Dean based on our one-on-one interaction, because that's all the time I ever got with him. So I also learned, after trying to follow up with his campaign staff and schedule an interview for a full week, that he is being overwhelmed by success, at least temporarily. It took days to get calls returned, and I never did get time with him. But everybody I talked to was so darn nice about it, it was hard to get mad. "We just don't have enough staff yet to keep up with all of this," someone who answered the phone one day told me apologetically. I got callbacks from three different people, all of whom were sweet and apologetic, none of whom got me time with him, or with campaign manager Joe Trippi, or any of the other information I wanted. I say this not to complain or to dis them, but to document. "They're having a lot of growing pains," one San Francisco volunteer confided. "But they're hiring, and it'll get better soon." I hope she's right.

Besides, I didn't need alone time with Dean to shed my cynicism about his electability as much as I needed to see his effect on other people. And I saw that at his two San Francisco speeches and the Meetup the next week. At his July 31 environmental address, which was open to the public, he packed the generic chandaliered ballroom of the Crowne Plaza Hotel with several hundred admirers, of whom I knew exactly two. There was a teeming crowd out front waiting for him ... like he was Bruce Springsteen or something. And despite stereotypes about the former Vermont governor's limited racial appeal, it was a pretty diverse crowd, with an almost respectable turnout of African Americans, Asians and Latinos. Sure, I saw a white guy in dreads and a white guy in a little knit kufi and I smelled patchouli once, but I also saw corporate folks in suits and suburban socialites. I saw the campaign's techy backers, too, at least a half-dozen 20-somethings capturing Dean's entrance with those cool little cameras in their cellphones.

"I'm sorry, but that was not your usual San Francisco political crowd," says Amy Rao, a Dean stalwart who said she didn't know many of the folks who turned out that morning, either. Rao's the CEO of a Palo Alto tech firm and a local Democratic fundraising powerhouse, and she held an April lunch for Dean. "At the time, I liked what he was saying, but I really didn't think he was electable," she confesses. Outside the restaurant just before Dean arrived, she noticed about a dozen young people holding picket signs and rushed out to see what the trouble was. The signs were Dean placards. "They were just Dean supporters who'd figured out he was in town and showed up to support him," she said, still marveling at his word-of-mouth base. Now she insists he's not only electable, he's the only Democrat who can beat Bush.

I saw parts of the Dean appeal quickly. He took the stage to frenzied applause, and asked the audience right away: "How many of you haven't been active in politics in the last 10-15 years?" And more than three-quarters of the crowd raised hands. He did his trademark transparency thing, apologizing for the fact that he was about to make a pretty formal policy speech. "There are some times in a campaign where you have to read speeches, and this is one. So forgive me if it gets drier than you're used to." He turns most of his imperfections into charm. His cellphone rang while he was speaking -- Lord, doesn't he have someone to turn it off for him? -- and he pretended the caller was Karl Rove. The crowd ate it up.

I ran into Well co-founder, entrepreneur and activist Larry Brilliant, the only other person besides Amy Rao I knew personally, and he was beaming. "Look at this crowd!" he said, marveling at its size and diversity. Later, he explained Dean's appeal in an e-mail. "Liberals like myself may be disappointed to find out he's a fiscal conservative, in the mold of Clinton not FDR, and a moderate on most things -- except this obscene ideological 'coup' of the Bush crowd. But I'm surprised how happy I am that someone is finally calling the emperor on the fact that he has no clothes. I was afraid Bush's deceptions would go unchallenged. That alone makes me love Howard Dean. I also happen to think he can win."

Of course, Larry Brilliant is exactly the kind of guy you expect to love Howard Dean. Casey Williams isn't. The stocky, friendly meatpacker from tiny Friona, Texas, voted for Ross Perot twice; he was undecided about a candidate for 2004 until he saw Dean at the UFCW's healthcare forum with me at the end of July. He decided right there Dean was the man to beat Bush. "I really didn't know about Dean except from reading the papers a little," Williams explained. "But I liked what he said. He's honest, and he's tough."

The UFCW convention was Dick Gephardt country. The place was papered with Gephardt placards but only a minority waved them. The Missouri congressman got lots of applause, but Dean got as much or maybe even more. Helen Chesser, a middle-aged grocery store worker from Dallas, said she was "sticking with Gephardt right now, because of all the years he's been there for us." Then she took my pen to get Dean's autograph, flirted with him a minute, and he flirted back. When I said goodbye she shook my hand and told me, sounding wistful: "I think Dean might be the only one tough enough to beat Bush."

The UFCW crowd seemed a lot like Donna Brazile: They were ready to love everybody. Only the leftier candidates -- Kucinich, Carol Moseley Braun, Gephardt and Dean -- showed up; Sharpton couldn't make it, but Kerry appeared by satellite, as befits his attempt to be a more centrist liberal. All of them got big cheers. These were the folks Al From tried to warn us about. But if Dean hadn't been red-baited by the DLC, you might well hear him as the moderate in the race. He criticized Kucinich and Moseley Braun's call for single-payer universal healthcare, the left's politically impossible dream, as well as Gephardt's expensive public-private hybrid. Kerry vied with Dean for the moderate mantle with his relatively modest healthcare plan, but overall Dean came off as the fiscal conservative in the bunch. Amazingly, he got the biggest hand from this union audience when he called George Bush a "borrow and spend, credit-card Republican" and promised to erase the deficit if he's elected.

It's also amazing that Dean could be the single biggest obstacle to Gephardt's dreams of running away with the labor endorsement. He's getting ready to make inroads with black and other minority voters, too. I laughed when I read Jake Tapper's great first Salon take on Dean-- which was mostly positive, but got more critical when Dean trotted out his black college roommates at Yale as evidence he's going to pull in African Americans, eventually, too. Of course, as you read the piece you saw it wasn't totally ridiculous: His old college pals pretty much vouched for the guy, they support him and predicted he'd win wider black support. And he plans to. He just hired Christopher Edley, who staffed Clinton's race commission, and his wife Maria Esteveste, to help him colorize his constituency. Last week he lured Carol Moseley Braun's campaign manager, Andrea Pringle, to be his deputy campaign manager. Donna Brazile told me a version of the story she's telling everyone, about the African Methodist Episcopal bishop in New Orleans who loves Dean. "He saw that first debate in South Carolina and he told me, 'Donna, I've got a candidate -- it's Dean!'"

The other thing Dean's got going for him is that he seems comfortable in his skin, and that attracts voters of every skin tone. Al Sharpton has reportedly told friends that of all his campaign-trail colleagues, he likes the gray-haired white boy from Vermont. Dean positively flirts with Carol Moseley Braun at debates and other joint appearances. I wouldn't dismiss his ability to attract minority support. "Black voters are pragmatists; they'll support someone who can beat Bush," says Brazile.

Although the audience for Dean's San Francisco environmental speech was fairly racially diverse, my Meetup was overwhelmingly white, but I loved it anyway. Partly the turnout had to do with being in an Irish bar in a relatively conservative San Francisco neighborhood -- though one speaker hailed the Irish as great supporters of "revolution." But the Meetup I attended was diverse in its own way. The fundraising and events volunteer who gave a little pitch is a one-time Perot voter, Chris Zychowski, a pink-cheeked former software engineer who doesn't look old enough either to have voted for Perot or to have left one career for another. Now he's headed to law school, he says, "after the Dean campaign," for which he's a full-time volunteer.

The Meetup turnout made me think of something's Zack Exley said: "The Dean campaign will ultimately succeed only if it can use the Internet to build a real grass-roots organization and campaign." The Internet has been Dean's version of John McCain's "Straight Talk Express," his vehicle for getting his blunt message across to voters. Of course it's far more powerful than McCain's media-beloved photo-ops -- Dean has used e-mail to identify supporters, and to raise millions of dollars, which is significant in itself. But Exley wants to see if Dean can use the Internet to do the nuts and bolts of getting elected: "Can he use it to mobilize hundreds of thousands of supporters? Can he find volunteers who are willing to leaflet, to be precinct workers, develop voter lists, phone banks, do Election Day get-out-the-vote?"

What most impressed me at the Meetup was the extent to which it's helping Dean do all of that. Folks were signing up to leaflet, to work the media, to plan events, to fundraise. The Meetups have also helped morph into the DeanCorps, an attempt to link the campaign to other types of volunteerism and vice versa. They're going to start serving breakfast at Glide Memorial Church, a hothouse of local liberal activism and social service; September Meetups will encourage attendees to bring school supplies.

My Dean Meetup was the perfect tonic after a day that saw Schwarzenegger upend the recall race. Democrats who are dissing the phenomenon are crazy. One rival campaign aide called the get-togethers "the bar scene from Star Wars" in the New Republic. Kerry campaign manager Jim Jordan came close to dismissing the whole Dean Internet campaign in Time last week: "It's like watching my 13-year-old daughter instant-messaging," Jordan said. "It's not particularly about politics and policy. It's almost like a reality show." God forbid someone should make politics fun again.

Does all this mean I think Dean can win the nomination and beat Bush? I still have no idea. Although he's leading in key primary states, he still trails at least Lieberman and Kerry, and sometimes Gephardt too, in national polls among Democrats. But the comparisons to Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 are silly: They were both charisma-impaired party regulars who never really excited the base, let alone captured the mainstream. Dean has the capacity to do both, which doesn't mean he ultimately will. The links to George McGovern strike me as more sound: The South Dakota senator inspired a lefty base but could never catch fire with moderates. But I'd say Dean's already made more inroads with the mainstream than McGovern ever did -- and has the potential to do much more.

I've leaned towards Kerry because I think his war record protects him from the GOP smear that Democrats are weak on defense (though it sure didn't help veteran Max Cleland keep his Senate seat in Georgia last year). And if things settle down in Iraq, Dean's strident opposition to the way Bush handled the buildup to war and its aftermath may well marginalize him. But one thing I know for sure: With Bush's approval rating at its lowest level ever -- down 20 points from just after the first phase of the Iraq war -- it strikes me as crazier than ever that some Democrats are trying to do Karl Rove's work for him, and dismiss the Dean surge as the angry squawking of the party's loud but tiny throwback base.

Not surprisingly, Donna Brazile agrees. "I think Dean has to move beyond his base, attract institutional players, work the mainstream. But his campaign is telling us that the left is going to have a seat at the table again. That's the message to the DLC: Get used to it. Stop saying liberals are no longer good enough for the Democratic Party. Somebody needs to knock 'em a new asshole."

And it just might be Howard Dean. He still has his negatives: His campaign's in a little too much disarray, and even some supporters think the "likability" issue could plague him. Larry Brilliant was bothered by Dean's appearance on "Meet the Press" last month, when Tim Russert stumped him by asking the size of the American military, and he got cranky, comparing the question to "asking me the name of the Ambassador of Rwanda." "He got into a pissing match with Russert and he blew it. You don't get angry at a reporter who has caught you on something you don't know and probably should have."

One thing I don't worry about is that his lefty base doesn't know what he stands for, and will bolt when they realize he's a moderate. His base knows exactly how moderate he is. I interviewed dozens of his liberal devotees, and they all know the not-so-liberal aspects of his record. Someone at the Meetup lamented his staunch pro-Israel stance; several people I met said they differed with him on the death penalty. Brilliant says he has issues with Dean on all of his more conservative stands. "But he's not afraid to say what he thinks. Dean asks the fundamentally sound questions and does not have an ideological answer that trumps reason, as Bush does."

Still, Dean's summer surge could mean nothing come January. The biggest question about him is whether the darling of San Francisco and the frontrunner in Iowa and New Hampshire will have any appeal in the South. It's hard to imagine that a Northeastern antiwar candidate who's best known for signing a gay civil unions bill will play well in that crucial region. But two months ago, it was hard to imagine Dean moving into the lead in the early primary states or taking the Time and Newsweek covers by storm. We still don't know if he's George McGovern or Jimmy Carter, but he's earned serious political attention and respect. Finally, he's got mine.

By Joan Walsh