Notes on the Atrocities
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Friday, September 26, 2003  

Is Dean Angry?

When Dean was gathering steam in his campaign, people started floating various theories as to why. Insidiously, conservatives and conservative Democrats have managed to stick a label to his success: angry.

Among the Democrats running for president, nobody stirs more passion and excitement from party activists than Dean. The once-obscure Vermonter's blunt talk and early opposition to the war in Iraq have turned him into a fundraising and grass roots phenomenon. Most of the other Democrats sharpened their anti-Bush rhetoric to tap the angry Democrats excited by Dean.

Dean is expected to pull in more than $10-million in the quarter ending Sept. 30, and his success is triggering an internal struggle over the soul of the Democratic Party. Some worry the party is headed toward a repeat of the humiliations of Walter Mondale and George McGovern, Democratic candidates tagged with the liberal label.

It isn't even a hypothesis anymore--it's a mostly-accepted truth. Media are in this habit--they want a quick thumbnail sketch of any figure. In political campaigns, the frontrunners are those who have already established a sketch; the outsiders are those unknown to the media echo chamber. So Lieberman, despite having no apparent supporters, is the front runner because he was the candidate for Veep last time around. He's a nice guy to the media, so that's what you hear about--amiable front-runner Joe Lieberman.

When Howard Dean, whom the media had labeled a marginal anti-war liberal from New England, emerged on the national scene with hosts of supporters, the re-sketching ensued. After all, you can't very well be marginal if you've got the most supporters and seem to be most in step with the party. So who is this guy, the media wanted to know. Funny thing about the echo chamber is, though, whoever yells in it first and loudest creates reality. Voila: Howard Dean, angry candidate who will only inspire party "activists" through his hateful speech while alienating "mainstream" voters.

Fortunately, it's a sketch that hasn't completely gelled yet. So before it does, I think liberals need to ask the question--where did this characterization come from?

Where else could this have come from? Certainly not from those who know his platform. His anger at the Bush follies was real (and is shared by his 9 co-candidates, who condemn the President harshly), but he came out of the gates with a fully-developed platform. He immediately began talking issues and talking specifics. He took the Republicans to task, certainly--but on the issues.

But that's not what the Dean sketch looks like. Thanks to folks like the DLC and George Will --who have an active interest in seeing Dean defeated--the image of Dean is not positive. Whether his anger causes the commentator to call him a latter day McGovern or Newt Gingrich makes little difference--he's just angry. You know, like Gore was boring.

To his credit, Dean hasn't enforced this characterization so far. But if last night's debate is any guide, people are really going to try to stick him with negative labels. That's all part of politics. But as good bloggers and policy wonks, we shouldn't submit to the simplistic characterization. All candidates are far greater than the sum of the media sketch. Often they don't actually even resemble the sketch (remember Bush's characterization as a man-of-the-people, an everyday salt). More importantly, before we accept the characterization, it doesn't hurt to look at the people doing the characterizing and getting a handle on what they have to gain from it.

Dean may be angry, but he's not "the angry candidate." That's just conservatives trying to marginalize a serious threat to their power. If anything, it's what recommends Dean the most.

posted by Jeff | 10:16 AM |
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