The Howard Dean Phenomenon

Feb 232004
Authors: Brent Ables

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

controversial figure.

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

Dean campaign.

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


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