The Dean Dilemma

The murmurs of doubt are faint, barely audible above the background hum of the Internet cosmos, but they are worth listening to at the moment, for the doubters don't seem to be "trolls"--provocateurs in digital disguise--and they express concerns about their favorite son, Dr. Howard Dean, in the bosom of his own blogosphere.

"Dammit, tell him to get his mouth under control!" says "WVMicko" on a forum conducted by Dean's official Web site. "He's been all over the map on a lot of things, and the way he shoots off his mouth is a big reason why." A poster to the site named "Lancaster" frets that his wife is put off by Dean's confrontational personality. "Her initial reaction to Dean? 'That guy scares me.' Now, I'm not a full-fledged Deanie, but I'm strongly leaning that way... but she's still not convinced that Dean is the right guy for the job." A writer named "irmaly" also views Dean's personality as a vulnerability. "I am a strong Dean supporter," irmaly declares, "but I think the campaign is missing this most important point--the need to focus strongly on getting up over the perception of 'mean, angry Dean.' Dean is portrayed as a man who, rather than share a beer in a local hangout, will fight you for yours. I realize this isn't true, but Bush and Company knows perception is everything, and they have already had some success at seriously hurting Dean on this perception. I don't know how you get up over this, but you have to, or we will lose."

Like the meteoric Internet start-up he in many ways resembles, Dr. Howard Dean is poised to merge with--or conduct a hostile takeover of--an "old media" conglomerate, the Democratic Party. For now, the country doctor and former Vermont governor remains the odds-on favorite to win its presidential nomination in a voting process that, technically, began last week when the Michigan party began accepting e-mail requests for e-mail ballots. The first events in the physical territory of politics take place later this month: the Iowa caucuses on the 19th, the New Hampshire primary on the 27th. Of the nine candidates in the race, Dean has raised the most money, claims to have the most cash on hand and has the lead in all the national polls and in those early-voting states, too.

Yet no one since Jimmy Carter has risen to front-runnerhood in quite the way Dean has: as a largely invisible outsider catapulted to a commanding position without so much as a nod from the Beltway political kingmakers. Dean's blunt, combative persona--and his opposition to George W. Bush's war in Iraq--allowed him to rocket to the top via the Internet. But, on the center stage of traditional politics, he's a controversial figure, launching attacks but airily refusing (especially now that he's ahead in the polls) to answer charges of his rivals; given to fights for their own sake, not-so-subtle adjustments of positions, sloppy statements and seemingly self-inflicted wounds. Thus far, the resulting dust-ups haven't hurt him. In fact, they may have done the opposite, inspiring team spirit among Deanies and branding him vividly as the kind of anti-establishment, hell-for-leather, shin-kicker who grass-roots Democrats want to lead them into mortal combat against the presidential imperium.

Still, there are doubts about Dr. Dean--and a desire to get a second opinion before accepting his diagnosis. The occasional whispers on his blog are amplified to a deafening roar elsewhere--by rivals on the campaign trail who are honing strategies (and sometimes plotting with each other) to stop him; by Beltway insiders, especially Clinton loyalists, who fear (correctly) that Dean represents a changing of the guard, and by Republicans in and out of the White House who cannot wait to get their hands on a man they--and many Democrats--see as a composite reincarnation of big-time losers such as George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

Under the old rules--which may or may not apply to likely Democratic primary voters in the Age of Bush--Dean would seem to be ripe for a fall. For starters, he has perpetrated any number of what, in the trade, are known as gaffes, requiring a crew of staffers (and his skill at fast talking) to constantly clean up after his own parade. Political junkies are familiar with the litany. Among other things, Dean has condescended to Southern, rural white men by inferring that they all drive pickup trucks with Confederate-flag decals on the back; metaphorically compared Washington insiders (including, presumably, those few who support him) to cockroaches; inferred that all his major rivals are really Republicans, and admitted that his lack of foreign-policy experience would require him to "plug that hole in my resume" with his vice presidential pick. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Dean dismissed such lists as mere catalogs of his brutal candor. "The definition of a 'gaffe' in Washington is somebody who tells the truth but shouldn't have," he said, echoing the journalist Michael Kinsley, who coined a similar aphorism. Critics see it differently than the governor does. "I think the guy has mad-mouth disease," said James Carville, Bill Clinton's former top political adviser and dean of the "Stop Dean" spinners.

More serious, Dean's foes say, is his penchant for adjusting his positions on issues, especially since he's hawking himself as a nonpolitical Yankee with a backbone as thick as the trunk of a Vermont maple. Indeed, on the war in Iraq, he was opposed from the start and has wavered very little. On other issues, though, there's been more swaying in the breeze. Years ago he was a supporter of Jimmy Carter's against the insurgency of Sen. Ted Kennedy and was, therefore, on the pro-business side of the party; now Dean rails against Carter's political descendants in the Democratic Leadership Council. Dean was for NAFTA and GATT, but now opposes any further free-trade agreements unless they have higher labor and environmental standards. He once thought it might be wise to raise the retirement age to protect Social Security; now he rules that out. Dean once thought Medicare was a miserable, poorly administered program; now he wants to save and expand it.

In Dean's NEWSWEEK interview, motion seemed evident in his attitude toward Osama bin Laden. In late December, Dean said he believed the "old-fashioned notion" that, if captured, the master terrorist should be bound over for a jury trial. A few hours later he issued a statement saying that bin Laden should, in fact, be dealt with by the same kind of military-run tribunal Saddam Hussein is expected to face. Last week he told NEWSWEEK that, if the American military has bin Laden in its sights, soldiers should kill him. "Of course we ought to off Osama," he said. "I was asked a hypothetical question about what would happen if Osama was captured. If we can get Osama, we ought to get Osama, however we can get Osama."

Dean's critics accuse him of more than an excess of bluntness and skill at political maneuver. They think the good doctor isn't always forthcoming, especially on matters that raise questions about his record. They note his aggressive moves to seal his official papers (he did so for a period longer than that of any previous Vermont governor) and his alternately candid and disingenuous explanations for why he had made the move--in anticipation of running for president, he said at one point; to protect the privacy of HIV/AIDS patients, he said later. Foes note that Dean had his own "secret" energy task force in Vermont, though he rightly points out that its membership was disclosed after its work was done.

A very private man in a public business, Dean seems to chafe--as any mortal would--at the scorched-earth disclosure requirements of presidential politics. He may have gotten a bit too comfortable on that score in Vermont, where governors aren't required to reveal anything about their personal finances. Still, this is the life he has chosen, and reporters and oppo teams from rival campaigns are on the hunt for stories in the numbers. One interesting topic: his sale of shares in five Vermont banks after he became governor. He told NEWSWEEK he had sold them in 1991 as soon as he realized that briefings from a state banking official contained inside information. Dean told NEWSWEEK that he could have profited more handsomely had he been able to hold on to the shares, but campaign officials say that so far they can't locate records to document precisely when the sale was made. "When she [the banking official] came in and briefed me, I sold the stocks," Dean told NEWSWEEK, "because I knew that that constituted inside information. Or at least I felt that it did."

Dean also may have some more explaining to do about his relationship with a drug company called Astra, which by 1997 was in a limited partnership with another big drug firm, Merck. In 1998, two things were happening in Montpelier: Dean was running for re-election, and drug companies, including Merck, were lobbying against the imposition of price controls on drugs in the state. Over the years Dean, who at the time opposed the price-control plan, had taken campaign contributions from the drug industry, including $3,000 from Merck. (Dean later turned tougher on the industry.)

In May 1998, NEWSWEEK has learned, Dean earned $4,000 for a speech at a conference sponsored by Astra--a firm that, as it happened, was in the midst of defending itself (unsuccessfully) against a major sexual-harassment suit involving 80 female former employees. Dean was scheduled to give another speech to another Astra meeting five months later, in October 1998--until a reporter got wind of his plan. Asked about it at a press conference, Dean at first defended the idea, but within hours changed his mind, saying he didn't want to give his political enemies ammunition. What he didn't disclose at the press conference--and, indeed, never mentioned later--was that he had already been paid for the earlier speech to the same controversial company. Tax returns made public by the campaign last year show an additional payment, of $5,000, for a speech in 1999. Dean aides said the payment came from Astra, but were unable late last weekend to provide an immediate explanation for the speech or the fee.

None of which--the gaffes, the changes of stance, the full nondisclosure--rankles Dean's foes nearly as much as his implied assertion that no one has a right to criticize him, or conspire against him, now that he is the front runner. His eight competitors (and their allies) were infuriated when he rolled out Al Gore not only to endorse him, but to argue that Democrats should mimic the Republican "11th commandment," and speak no ill of other candidates--meaning, primarily, Dean. The rest of the field is especially outraged because Dean, a former wrestler and born rhetorical knee-capper, rose to prominence largely through angry attacks on "traditional Washington politicians" whom he portrayed as kowtowing to Bush in a frenzy of misplaced patriotism following 9/11. "Now he's stalling for time and wants to call off politics," says Bill Carrick, senior adviser to Rep. Dick Gephardt. "Dean is saying it's over already, so why get the voters involved?" Indeed, Dean can't quite resist the temptation to feel that way: in the NEWSWEEK interview, he described the last year as "a tough long crawl, and we're down to a little bit more than two weeks."

In fact, if Dean's opponents have their way, his marathon is just beginning. In Iowa, where the locals will meet a week from next Monday in hundreds of caucuses, the 11th commandment doesn't exist. A shadowy, labor-funded independent group (cheered on, at least indirectly, by the campaigns of Gephardt and Sen. John Kerry) attacked Dean as soft on defense and ignorant on foreign policy. Dean responded with a mailing--he claims not to know about its contents--attacking the two foes as "Bush lite." Dean, who forsook federal funding so he could spend dough with impunity where and when he wanted, is running neck and neck with Gephardt in Iowa, and is pouring resources into the state. So, too, is Kerry, who is desperate to revive his faltering campaign with a surprisingly strong finish there.

Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, sounds like a football coach praying for a first down that will allow his team to run out the clock. Other campaigns are concentrating on a state or two with the hope of slowing Dean down: Gephardt and Kerry in Iowa; Gen. Wesley Clark, Kerry and Sen. Joseph Lieberman in New Hampshire; Clark and Sen. John Edwards in the seven states (led by South Carolina) that vote on Feb. 3. "The good news is that we're ahead," says Trippi. "The bad news is that, unlike the rest of the field, we have to run in all 50 states." (The Dean campaign has little hope of winning Oklahoma, Trippi admits, but is airing TV spots there anyway.)

Dean will have the cash to play everywhere, but so, it appears, may one other candidate: Clark. The retired general, a growing favorite of Clintonites and party donors from coast to coast (and with an impressively savvy Internet operation of his own), came relatively close to matching Dean in fund-raising in the fourth quarter of last year (collecting roughly $11 million to Dean's $16 million). Trippi claims, with some justice, that "we're the only campaign that can reload" because Clark, despite his impressive Internet showing, is raising money mostly from large donors who are "maxing out" with $2,000 contributions. But if he catches on, Clark might be able to "reload" in a different way, by harvesting big donations from Clintonistas and former supporters of Washington-based candidates who fall by the wayside.

In any case, Clark has the potential to be Trippi's--and Dean's--worst nightmare, and a comeuppance of a sort as well: a second, fast-closing Web-based outsider who can, in ways Dean cannot, appeal to insiders while at the same time "plugging that hole" Dean has on defense and foreign policy.

One Dean defense against the rise of Clark may be the devalued--but not quite defunct--campaign of John Kerry, who began last year as the pundits' pick. But his campaign has been riven with confusion and mixed messages from the moment last spring when he voted to authorize Bush to go to war in Iraq.

Now, in one of those cruel ironies that only politics can impose, Dean and Gephardt--for disparate reasons--want to prop Kerry up. Dean's motive: to make sure that Kerry, not Clark, finishes in second place in New Hampshire; Gephardt's motive: to siphon crucial votes from Dean in Iowa.

In fact, all of the Un-Deans may conspire, in as many local Iowa caucuses as possible, to throw support to a temporary ally, depending on which of Dean's foes is most likely to win delegates in each meeting. Trippi denounced the tactic in an angry e-mail to Dean supporters, though there is no evidence of a mass attempt to use it. Carrick reacted with scorn. "Is there a coordinated effort to do that? No," he said. "Do I hope it happens? Absolutely. I'm sick of their paranoid, creepy attitude." A Dean loss in Iowa--still a possibility--would open up the race, but not just for Gephardt. Trippi's other deep concern: a strong second-place finish for Clark in New Hampshire, setting up the former general for a quick, Jacksonian (as in Stonewall) raid on the South.

Asked by NEWSWEEK which states Gore lost in 2000 that Dean would win in 2004 (excluding Florida), the doctor mentioned West Virginia, Arizona, Montana, Ohio and New Hampshire, "just for openers. I don't have the map right in front of me."

But Karl Rove does. In his office at the White House, and at campaign headquarters in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, the people who run "BC04"--the Bush-Cheney re-elect--are savoring the possibility of what they regard as the best outcome: the triumph-damaged Dean, wrapped in miles of videotaped criticism from his fellow Democrats. A top Republican Party official argues that the former governor's commitment to a "personalized angry campaign of the left" is too deep to be retooled, and would make him easy pickings in the fall. In the BC04 view, Democratic "Blue States" are turning "Purple" under the influence of Bush's sunny persona, good news on the economy and the capture of Saddam Hussein. Bush strategists scoff at the idea that Dean can compete in the South. And they note that the president's e-mail list--more than 10 times the size of the Dean campaign's--is geared to getting out the vote, not for chitchat. But say this for Dean: he's letting his supporters speak their mind--and even express their concerns about him--and that is good for democracy no matter who wins in November.