Dean, sunny-side up

Dogged by criticism that he is "too angry," Howard Dean rolls out a new, positive message on his rapidly expanding road show.

Published November 20, 2003 3:06PM (EST)

At the beginning of last week Howard Dean was flying around the country on a Learjet, with room for himself, a couple of staffers, up to four reporters and about nothing else. Thursday, he flew from Albuquerque, N.M., in the morning to Burlington at night on a much larger GulfStream 2, in an attempt to accommodate the crush of media now assigned to stick close to him nearly full-time.

The increased attention from the press is an indication of the turn his campaign has taken over the last two weeks, as Dean has picked up key labor and political endorsements and appears to be solidifying his position as front-runner. It's also an illustration of the sort of scrutiny Dean will be subjected to from now on.

Now, then, begins a real battle for Dean's image: His opponents want voters to see him as an inconsistent supporter of key Democratic causes and an unreconstructed, unelectable liberal. And Dean, who has made a concerted effort in recent days to broaden his message beyond a central antiwar, anti-Bush theme, is attempting to show more of the free-thinking, ideologically moderate policy wonk he was when he ran Vermont.

Hence, on a day when former Gen. Wesley Clark criticized him for proposing too much new government regulation of business, Dean talked about his own proposal to roll back the federal government's regulation of schools.

After beginning his day at the National Congress of American Indians in Albuquerque, Dean jetted to a middle school in Davenport, Iowa, to talk about his plan for education, which consists largely of undoing what he considers to be the "huge mistake" of President Bush's reform, "No Child Left Behind." In front of a library room full of teachers, parents and reporters, he outlined a plan to do away with much of the currently mandated regimen of standardized testing for public schools, saying that it was essentially a recipe for undermining the public school system.

"What this is about is undoing public schools," he said.

He also proposed spending $25 billion to fund training programs for teachers, support programs for parents, and extra help for students. Pointing to the administration's spending of federal money on tax cuts and Iraq, he said, "I think we can find $25 billion for education." As in most of his deliveries, much of the energy was spent painting President George Bush as incompetent, dishonest, uncaring. "As with almost everything from this president, this is purely political," he said. "This isn't meant to be good policy."

The former governor also took up the cause of local regulation in states like Iowa, railing against "unfunded mandates" and the federally standardized testing required by No Child Left Behind, which he said set schools up for failure. "The states ought to do their own assessments ... The idea that somehow President Bush, who governed one of the worst school systems [in Texas], has any ideas for how to improve schools here is ludicrous. Keep your hands off Iowa schools!" he said, to loud applause from the roomful of local teachers and parents. (Dean presented himself as a states' rights advocate when he was governor of Vermont, urging state-by-state regulation of areas as diverse as gun control -- views that earned him an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association -- to education.)

His oratory about education -- long on specifics, with an emphasis on actual executive accomplishments in Vermont, and substantive criticisms of current policy -- was distinct from the more emotional tone he has taken when talking about the war in Iraq. It is characteristic of the manner the press and public is seeing more of as he begins to look past the primaries to the general election, moving beyond the indignant rhetoric that has drawn the most enthusiastic reactions from liberal crowds in the early stages of his campaign.

His proposed improvements for education -- including increasing money for after-school programs and free school breakfasts, an additional certification process for teachers, and faster integration of learning-disabled students into mainstream classes -- were delivered in concise, bullet-point style, after the model of Bill Clinton's famously detailed policy speeches.

The other sign of Dean's stylistic evolution was a decidedly deliberate emphasis on optimistic language -- borrowing a page from the current president -- in contrast to some of his less-sunny speeches criticizing Bush policy and his Democratic opponents, which have earned him the dreaded "too angry" designation from critics in both parties.

"I want to run an administration based on hope rather than fear," he said, standing under a campaign banner that said "A New Day for Democrats; Educating a Generation."

It seemed to achieve the desired effect, politically speaking -- almost on cue, a local school board member, Tim Tupper, said, "We had some representatives of the Bush administration here a couple of weeks ago. It was interesting to hear the difference. Tonight, we heard about a positive vision."

Dean nodded.

"We didn't hear that [from the administration officials]," Tupper continued. "All we heard was, 'We're going to use a stick to make sure it happens.'"

But while Dean was presenting himself as a Clintonesque reinventor of government -- at least on education -- Clark was criticizing him at an event in Boston for his promises to reregulate the recently scandalized utility companies, media conglomerates and companies that offer stock options. Clark painted Dean as an old-fashioned big-government liberal who, if elected, would undo many of Bill Clinton's business-friendly reforms. "I don't think our party can win a general election if we abandon proven policies that have worked, that were the cornerstone of our success," he said.

The campaign responded through spokesperson Tricia Enright, who said, "If Democrats are not concerned with protecting consumers, workers and the average American, then they are truly out of touch."

After the meeting at the school, Dean squeezed in one more event at the airport before a plane ride to Vermont -- a quick speech to a bunch of stalwarts committed enough to have turned up at a smelly, cramped airport hangar at dinnertime to hear him speak for all of about five minutes.

The 75 or so politically jaded Iowans were certainly familiar enough with the routine. One supporter, a large painter's union member with a handlebar mustache named Scott Smith, patiently stood near the front of the room before Dean arrived, answering a reporter's questions. He said that Dean was a "friend of labor," a "fresh face" and "the most electable of all the candidates." After the reporter thanked him for taking the time to answer his questions, Smith replied, "It's all right, I get this a lot."

After a brief windup, Dean gave them the Cliff's version of his speech. He urged them to show up with as many friends as possible to support him at the Iowa caucuses. He quickly listed some of the issues he said he'd take on as president, including "tax fairness" and job creation.

And in a reference to his customary "Jesse Jackson meets He Man" close to his speeches -- and in a nod to the crowd's familiarity with his message -- he said, "You already know you have the power, so I won't do that to you again."

At the end of the night, after the campaign's new and improved airplane touched down in Burlington, the former Vermont governor stood among a group of rain-sodden staffers and journalists in the airport's tiny terminal, taking care of some final business: He signed a stack of papers handed to him by an aide to get himself on the ballot in several states. He stayed for a couple of minutes to chat. And then he headed off into the rainy night.

By Josh Benson

Josh Benson is Salon's national correspondent.

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