Politics in the modern age is, to a great degree, a matter of
recycling. It is, and has been for many years, all too easy for
campaigning politicians to spout clich�s and tired promises
to please potential voters. Consequently, it is nearly impossible
for candidates with unique ideas – candidates like Ralph Nader or
Pat Buchanan – to move beyond the fringes of the political arena
and have their suggestions taken seriously.
However, this state of affairs may be changing. The Democratic
primary elections that began in February and will continue for
several more weeks brought us a total of 10 major candidates,
representing the full spectrum of Democratic views. There were
moderates like Joseph Lieberman, leftist thinkers like Al Sharpton
and candidates everywhere in between.
It is probable, however, that we have heard about no candidate
more than Howard Dean. Though his presidency bid is now officially
over, Dean’s campaign continues to inspire a great deal of debate
and discussion. The certified doctor and former Vermont governor
largely defined the race until his Iowa defeat and even now he is a
Clearly, there was something special about the Dean campaign.
Just what was it that enabled this man to burst from obscurity to
the head of the Democratic pack, and what was the reason for his
equally unexpected downfall and eventual resignation?
First, Dean was able to utilize technology for his campaign’s
benefit effectively as any candidate in recent years. Here, of
course, the medium was the Internet. Dean may be remembered as the
first major presidential candidate to make truly effective use of
the Internet as a campaigning tool. In this sense, Dean both
reflects the trends of the time and has set something of a
precedent for candidates in the future.
Second, Dean was able to effectively shake up the Democratic
Party in a way that will undoubtedly be remembered by party heads.
Although candidates such as Sharpton or Dennis Kucinich were far
more liberal than Dean, these candidates never presented a
significant threat of winning the race. Dean did. Not only did his
policies openly contradict those of the very moderate Democratic
National Committee, but Dean also made it explicitly clear that he
had no intention of falling into the tired stances of the DNC.
But whatever else defined Howard Dean as a candidate, one can
never forget the man’s passion. Described at times as “angry” or
“hot” by detractors and “fiery” or “inspiring” by supporters, Dean
was (until after the Iowa loss) unapologetic about his bold and
confrontational approach to politics. This was largely the reason
why so many Democrats – especially young ones – latched onto the
It also, however, contributed to his rapid downfall and intense
media criticism. Though Dean’s confrontational attitude was a
relief for those horrified by the Bush administration’s actions, it
was also a power to be feared by those in the media and at the DNC
who are much more comfortable with mainstream, non-threatening
politics. To be successful, Dean would have had to rely on another
channel through which to communicate.
That other channel, for a while, was the Internet. But the
Internet campaign, a new and experimental way in which to utilize
technology for politics, was unable to reach beyond staunch Dean
supporters to be meaningful for much of the public. Similarly,
although Dean’s challenges to the Democratic leadership attracted a
fiery group of supporters, it worked against him in the end, as it
is always an uphill battle in politics to challenge established
And, of course, Dean’s passion backfired with disastrous results
in his post-Iowa speech, in which he vehemently rattled off a list
of states yet to be won and culminated with a whooping call to
action. Dean received so much criticism for this simple event that
his campaign was largely doomed from that point on: everybody
learned to be afraid of the “angry” candidate. It was a painful
reminder that Americans are much more concerned about how a
candidate speaks than what he says, or what he does.
Some people might learn from all of this that candidates, to be
successful, must relegate themselves to mediocrity, but this is
overly pessimistic. The more politicians follow the example of
Howard Dean, the more Americans will learn to appreciate candidates
who stand behind what they say and who are more concerned with
being honest than with pleasing voters. If this happens, then Dean
will likely be remembered as the man who sparked this new approach.
If not, it is all the worse for the state of American politics.
Brent is a freshman studying philosophy. His column runs every