A year ago a deeply disoriented, dispirited and disjointed congressional Democratic Party, having just lost the Senate, its patriotism impugned, gathered to applaud George W. Bush's State of the Union address, a call to arms in Iraq. Against that tableau the feisty former Vermont governor Howard Dean slowly began his ascent as the antiwar, anti-"Washington Democrats" and generally anti-Bush candidate. He had this vast unpopulated territory to himself. In Iowa, where Rep. Richard Gephardt from neighboring Missouri was always the favorite, Dean suddenly pulled ahead, as he did nationally. But then his march veered onto a murder-suicide scene.
No sitting member of Congress' lower house has ever been elected to the presidency. Dick Gephardt's earnest manner, measured flat speech and universally acknowledged decency belied his loudly ticking ambition. His career was an unusual chronology: both unifying stands for the party and destructive episodes that tore the party apart -- but all somehow seen as stalwart.
His early distinction came in the aftermath of the 1984 Reagan landslide, when he became the first head of the newly founded Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group created in reaction to Walter Mondale's old politics of dependence on the unions. But in 1988 Gephardt ran for the presidential nomination as the champion of trade protectionism and aggrieved industrial labor, winning the Iowa caucuses by calling for high tariffs. However, his candidacy soon collapsed on its narrowness and negative attacks against the others in the race. In the first year of Bill Clinton's administration, Gephardt rancorously split the Democrats by opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement, and that division contributed to the party's losing the Congress in 1994 for the first time in two generations. Gephardt became the minority leader. In 1997, a frustrated Gephardt, without provocation or an issue, raised the banner of the hard left and denounced Clinton as a sellout to Republicans. Widely criticized by his members, he then retreated and wound up strongly defending Clinton in the impeachment trial.
Gephardt planned his 2004 campaign as a reprise of Iowa 1988, but the labor federation as a whole refused to endorse him and he was left with a handful of industrial unions and little else. His last hurrah was a last stand. His message was reduced to the nub of raw protectionism as he devoted himself to tearing down Dean, attacking him as a conservative wolf in liberal lamb's clothing. An independent expenditure committee financed and directed by people closely aligned with Gephardt produced a TV ad conflating Osama bin Laden's visage with Dean's: "Americans want a president who can face the dangers ahead, but Howard Dean has no military or foreign policy experience. And Howard Dean just cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy." The other candidates all leaped on the new front-runner. And the media predictably trained its harsh glare almost exclusively on Dean, putting him in the spotlight of a series of absurd pseudo-scandals on the order of a messy divorce involving a Vermont state trooper that ABC News bizarrely hyped as Dean's "question of judgment."
Dean's campaign was a stroke of innovation, using the Internet to create a new form of democratic political organization, the emergence of a party where one existed only in the patchiest way across the country. But in the heat he began to melt. His temperament began overshadowing his message. He demeaned his rivals as "cockroaches," implored the Democratic National Committee chairman to force them to halt their criticisms of him, declared, "I'm going after everybody because I'm tired of being a pincushion here," and shouted at a Republican at town hall meeting, "You sit down. You had your say and now I'm going to have my say." After Al Gore's surprise endorsement, others flooded in, and Dean clutched them like shields. Overnight, the insurgent appeared defensively crouched. In the fury, Dean reiterated his antiwar position -- but forgot to mention that as the only governor in the field, he had proven experience on the domestic issues that voters most cared about.
As both Gephardt and Dean slashed away at Dean, the door miraculously sprang open for Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards. Kerry, from Massachusetts, has a sparkling résumé as a Vietnam War hero who also led protests against the war -- and a far more liberal record than anyone else, including Dean. But as the very first front-runner, he had imploded his candidacy through constant indecision, lugubrious speech, imposition of a top-down establishment campaign run from Capitol Hill, and a vote for the Iraq War that he could not adequately explain but insisted on doing so at length. Edwards, a first-term senator from North Carolina, had no record to speak of but energy and smoothness. With attention riveted on Dean's floundering they seized upon the anti-Bush theme for themselves. Kerry appended it to his résumé. Edwards, a millionaire trial lawyer whose greatest skill is making a summation to a jury, presented himself as the modern upholder of the old economic populism, "son of a mill worker," surpassing Gephardt as his generational successor.
In the Iowa caucuses, Dean was damaged and Gephardt's support disintegrated, most of that drifting to Edwards. Kerry, rejecting his previous Iraq War position as best he could, soared as the figure of experience. Edwards called Bush the president of the "privileged few." Kerry mocked Bush's bravado: "Bring it on! Just don't let the door hit you on the way out!" They both passed unscathed because, while evading the distorting media gaze, they learned from Dean and became intensely and pointedly anti-Bush, the sine qua non for legitimacy among Democrats.
But the dynamic that has lifted them up is only beginning to unfold. Political geography is now destiny. While Iowa puts a premium on niceness, New Hampshire prides itself on flintiness. Iowa instinctively wants to reward the worthy; New Hampshire habitually wants to kill the king. Iowa tries to reach a consensus in front of the neighbors in the caucus; New Hampshire, in the privacy of the voting booth, wants to assert individuality. Iowa wants to cast a considered ballot; New Hampshire wants to, as its state motto proclaims, "live free or die." Will Dean recover? Will Wes Clark and Joe Lieberman, absent from Iowa, galvanize support or play assassins? Is there a new king? If there is, will he survive?