Dean and Clark's civil union

For now, at least, supporters of the two Democratic rivals are surprisingly cuddly.

By Michelle Goldberg

Published September 29, 2003 10:20PM (EDT)

Shortly before Thursday's Democratic debate began in downtown Manhattan, several dozen Howard Dean supporters faced off with a slightly smaller crowd of Wesley Clark fans. Standing with their backs to the Pace University auditorium, where the debate was held, the Dean supporters chanted, "We want Dean! We want Dean!"

Across from them, people holding signs saying "The Wes Wing" and "Wes Is Best," shouted, "We want Clark! We want Clark!" The shouts grew louder, each side trying to drown out the other.

Suddenly, one of the demonstrators yelled, "Down with Bush!" Both groups picked it up, amplifying each other -- "DOWN WITH BUSH! DOWN WITH BUSH!" When the police cleared the area for the candidates' arrivals a few moments later, the Clark and Dean contingents were chatting amicably. As they retired to separate downtown bars to watch the debate, members in both crowds could be overheard telling each other, "I'll work for you guys if you win!"

When Clark entered the race 10 days ago, many saw him as the stop-Dean candidate, drafted by party leaders to head off the former Vermont governor's grass-roots insurgence. Suddenly, the remarkable bottom-up movement that catapulted Dean to the top of the Democratic pack was being trumped by a top-down attempt to impose an arguably more electable candidate on the party. The man who energized followers by excoriating Democrats for acting like Republicans was now being challenged by a Democrat who, until recently, may have actually been a Republican.

And a real clash between the candidates -- as well as, presumably, their supporters -- seemed imminent, especially after Dean took a swipe at Clark on Tuesday, telling reporters he was "shocked" that Clark said he would have voted for the Iraq war resolution, and "I was even more shocked that he switched the next day." Since then, though, he's let others do the sniping. Even when moderator Brian Williams of MSNBC practically urged him to criticize Clark during Thursday's Democratic presidential debate ("Do you believe this is a Democrat you're standing next to?" Williams asked), Dean demurred. (On Sunday, however, Dean seemed to step up his attacks on Clark during an appearance on "Face the Nation." "A good guy, very qualified, but he was a Republican until 25 days ago, and I think that's going to be hard to swallow for a lot of Democrats," Dean said.)

His fan base seems to have stayed neutral as well -- even welcoming the general's entrance with open arms.

Many still see Clark as an excellent vice presidential prospect and the race's second-best candidate for president. While the media has played up Democratic party insiders' involvement in the Clark camp, among activists on the ground the Clark candidacy is widely viewed as a grass-roots phenomenon like Dean's, the result of the Internet-organized Draft Clark movement. Even if Clark has been sent to thwart their man, Dean's followers like and respect him as a fellow soldier in the war on Bush.

"I think it's a very positive development," said Betsy Kane, an attorney and Dean volunteer from Raleigh, N.C., of Clark's entry. "I think he brings a number of characteristics to the table that are needed right now. His military experience is important ... I don't really see him as a threat to Dean. If there's people power behind all the Democratic candidates, eventually one of them is going to rise to the top."

This is essentially the official view of the Dean campaign as well. Though at the start of his campaign Dean attacked the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, these days he's stressing his commonalities with Clinton (a former DLC chairman). If reports that Clinton is backing Clark prove true, it could be seen as a vote of no-confidence for Dean. So Dean's campaign is eager to emphasize that Clark's candidacy is simply the product of another grass-roots movement, and Dean supporters have adopted this line.

Waving goodbye to Clark supporters as she headed off to watch the debate, Ruth Bonnet, a 41-year old writer and Dean campaign volunteer from the Upper West Side, said, "Between the Dean people and the Clark people there's a lot of friendliness." Adds her friend Jordan Auslander, a bearded genealogist and fellow Dean supporter, "It helps to have someone with the moral authority of Clark talking about the fiasco in Iraq. I like Dean. I'm going to support both of them."

This equanimity toward Clark is partly a result of the Democratic unity engendered by George Bush. For months now, Dean has been careful to focus his attacks on the president, and his followers' ire is similarly targeted. That may change, says John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor who studies elections.

So far, says Geer, Clark's entry has hurt other Democrats more than Dean. "It seems to me what Clark really did was make it harder for someone like a [Joe] Lieberman or a [Bob] Graham or a [Dick] Gephardt to break through. It makes it more likely for it just to be a three-person race" between Dean, Clark and Kerry, he says.

Once the field shrinks, the rhetoric will likely get uglier. "Clark and Dean may be the last two standing, and then the gloves will come off," Geer says. "They're both after a pretty big prize. When that happens, it might not be so easy for their respective supporters to chant together."

Until then, though, Dean has little to gain by lashing out against anyone but Bush, and his supporters are too inspired and optimistic to harbor enmity for other Democrats.

At a short pre-debate rally Thursday, Dean addressed a throng crammed onto a hot patch of sidewalk abutting City Hall Park, laying out an analysis of the country's current predicament that resonates deeply with the liberal faithful.

"Over the last 10 years, our democracy has been undermined by a small group of right-wing ideologues," he said, counting off the now-familiar litany of conservative power grabs -- impeachment, the 2000 election, Texas redistricting, the California recall. "Our democracy is under assault by people who literally believe they have the God-given right to run this country no matter what we say." He continued, saying, "The flag of the United States does not belong to Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz ... John Ashcroft is going around the country defending the PATRIOT Act. That does not make him a patriot."

Of course, there's still some tension between the two sides. Dean's followers are a heterogeneous lot, attracted to his campaign for different reasons. How they feel about Clark largely depends on why they joined the Dean team in the first place. Some adore Dean for fearlessly taking on a president they loathe, but their hatred of Bush means they also get a little thrill imagining their nemesis stuttering through a debate with a dashing four-star Southern general. Some independents and Naderites, soured on party politics, see the Clark campaign, like that of Dean, as an anti-establishment insurgency.

But antiwar activists who gravitated toward Dean because of his stance on Iraq may be turned off by Clark's flip-flopping on the issue. And those who responded to Dean's attacks on the DLC seem to hate the idea of a race that essentially offers a choice between a Rockefeller Republican and a right-wing zealot.

On Thursday afternoon, at the bar where 100 or so Dean supporters gathered to watch the debate over pitchers of beer and greasy hamburgers, Cicely Nichols, a 65-year-old adult literacy teacher, was scornful of Clark's military career. "My life is not about revering generals," she said, adding that Clark is being pushed by the "good old [Democratic Leadership Council]. If Clark wins the nomination, she said, she'll campaign for him, "but my heart will be broken."

Many of these followers love Dean because he freed them from the alienation they felt when Bush was riding high politically. They're in love with the movement they built, and that attachment won't be easily transferable to another campaign, especially if they feel sabotaged by establishment Democrats.

Michael Cole, a 39-year-old third-grade teacher from Fairfield, Ohio, says, "I was so despondent before I got connected with the Dean campaign ... if it just comes down to a bunch of insider manipulation, I don't know ... It's like Wesley Clark is Bush and Dean is [John] McCain, and Dean is saying, 'Join us, join us.' But Clark has the backing of the powers that be, people behind the scenes, the old establishment. He's just going to come across as Bush lite, and that's not what's gotten Democrats excited, not at all."

Well, maybe not all of them. The fact remains, though, that it's easier to find Dean supporters who are swooning over Clark than steaming over him. "I'm very excited about Clark," said Fredrick Longacre, a grey-haired man in a pin-striped blue suit holding a "Dean for America" sign at the Manhattan rally Thursday. "He's a very charismatic guy, and his stellar military record won't hurt."

Why, then, was Longacre rallying for Dean? "I was for Dean until Wesley entered the race," he said. "I know I have to make a decision, and I wanted to see Dean up close."

Others have gone further than Longacre. Along with his wife, Lauren, John Windle, a 48-year-old from Indianapolis, was an early Dean supporter, but after seeing Clark speak this week, he's hoping the general wins the nomination.

Clark and Dean are being powered by the same dynamic, Windle said. "Dean and Clark are both outsiders fueled by grass-roots disenchantment with the Washington/congressional wing of the party. And believe me, both Dean and Clark supporters want to beat Bush so bad it's palpable."

"These people aren't jaded Iowa caucus voters waiting around for a personal pitch from John Kerry in the living room -- they went out and built a movement," he said. "I think their outsider status and similar trajectories will serve to unite their supporters around the ultimate winner."

Windle says this even though he knows that Clark is surrounded by Clinton hands and his Democratic credentials are in doubt.

As the American Prospect reported, there's even some question over just how grass roots the Draft Clark movement really was. The Prospect quotes an embittered Draft Clark activist saying, "My operative theory is that a bunch of political insiders decided to recruit a candidate and created a fake draft movement to pressure him."

This matters little to Windle, because his switch to Clark was purely strategic. He sounds almost wistful speaking about Dean's performance in the Thursday debate -- watching him, he says, "I remembered why I really like Dean so much. I just find his strong stances on issues and the way he puts it across very appealing." In the end, though, "Clark has all the tools to win a landslide. He's practically bulletproof to the typical Republican attacks."

People like Windle suggest that the Dean campaign may have to start worrying about defectors, but so far most say they're not going anywhere. Mike Carvalho was among a group of eight people who came from Philadelphia to hear Dean speak. Those who think Clark is going to steal Dean's thunder, he said, "are underestimating what's already been built. We're not going to be derailed."

After the 2000 election, said Carvalho, "A lot of us felt powerless, like no one speaks for us. Dean speaks for us. He believes in us."

Dean has given these people a sense of community that scarcely exists anymore in American life.

Tom Z. Bleck, a 54-year-old documentarian, stands in back of the bar where Dean's followers have gathered. He has a video camera with a microphone and a sign saying, "Tell Us Why You Support Howard Dean," and people are taking turn testifying to Dean's galvanizing, inspiring effect on their lives.

Gesturing at the people packed into the cavernous space in the middle of a workday, he says, "You don't see this with most of the other campaigns. I guarantee you, not many bars are full of people watching the debate like this." Clark, says Bleck, who voted for Nader in the last election, is an attempt to "short-circuit" the movement, but it will "short-circuit itself."

And if it doesn't? If Clark defeats Dean despite the thousands of people packed into bars and living rooms across America to cheer Dean's every word? "Clark's a very good candidate," says Bleck. "If he wins the nomination, I will totally, totally support the man."

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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