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24.2.04

Yet Another Howard Dean Post-Mortem

A while back I wrote an article contrasting "Dean" -- the candidate -- with "Deanism" -- the movement -- suggesting that the candidate failed because he got too wrapped up in the movement. I made a mistake in drawing too sharp a distinction between the two, making the movement out to be something new and exogenous that caught the candidate.

One of the things I listed as attracting me (and others) to Dean was his stance on civil unions. In my article I described that as part of "Dean." But I think the history of Dean's involvement with the civil union battle in some ways foreshadowed his involvement with the movement over the past couple years. It was a proto-Deanism, if you will.

Dean didn't start out as a crusader for gay rights. The issue was largely off his radar screen until it was thrust upon him by the Vermont Supreme Court's ruling. At the time, Dean's own opinions about same-sex marriage were ambivalent. But after talking with people and thinking about the ramifications, he decided to take a chance and jump headfirst into the pro-union struggle. It was a risk -- to his career and even his life -- since many Vermonters were strongly against gay rights (and started a campaign to "take back" the state). As time went on, he identified more and more with the issue, to the point that today he never misses an opportunity to point to the civil unions bill as evidence that he believes in "equal rights for all."

Now think about his presidential campaign. Dean didn't start out as a populist. The possibility of leading a grassroots movement was largely off his radar screen, as well as Joe Trippi's, until it was thrust upon them by the interest of independent bloggers. After talking with people and thinking about the ramifications, he decided to take a chance and bank it all on the movement. It was a risk, since the netroots strategy had never been tried before and he lacked the usual party organization. As time went on, he identified more and more with the issue, until his campaign became a campaign about itself.

In both instances, something unexpected came along, and Dean took the risk of hitching his wagon to it. The civil unions gamble paid off, as he won reelection after signing the bill. The movement gamble didn't, as he tanked and screamed in Iowa and never recovered. I suspect my original analysis -- too much Deanism, not enough Dean -- remains accurate for the presidential campaign. He won the gubernatorial race by being about more than just civil unions, just as he might have had a shot at the presidency if he hadn't made the netroots the whole of his message.

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