Howard Dean was an unlikely candidate for president in 2004, and he is an unlikely candidate for 2016. He surprised a lot of people nine years ago when he provided an inspiring jolt to a party dispirited by four years of George W. Bush. He says otherwise, but he may be preparing another jolt for the race that begins a little more than two years from now.
Vermonters have experienced a combination of reactions to the Howard Dean phenomenon. They have been bemused at his audacity. They have been intrigued by the way the rest of the country has had to grapple to understand the state of Vermont. And they have been proud of the degree to which Dean was able to pioneer a new style of politics — combining shrewd risk-taking, cutting-edge technology, sophisticated organization and an against-the-grain personality to shake up the experts and capture the imagination of voters.
It didn’t actually turn out so well in 2004. Dean’s vaunted organization stumbled in the Iowa caucuses. Infighting among his staffers crippled his operation. Dean himself became the object of mockery after the concession speech in Iowa during which weird microphone levels transformed a morale-boosting speech to disappointed followers into an embarrassing screech forever labeled The Scream.
The ascendancy of Howard Dean was surprising to the nation because he was a little-known governor from a small state. It was surprising to Vermonters because they thought they knew him well after five-plus terms as governor. As governor he had revealed himself as a pragmatic centrist unafraid to take on critics from the left or the right. He was tenacious in pursuing his pet projects, such as the Champion land deal in the Northeast Kingdom, and principled when it counted, as in the battle over civil unions.
Few would have guessed his abundant self-confidence was abundant enough to persuade him to run for the presidency. It turned out, however, that he was shrewdly calculating in concluding that “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” as he described it, was outraged by Democratic complicity in the war in Iraq and that his opposition would go a long way in capturing liberal support.
After John Kerry’s defeat in 2004, Dean became Democratic Party chairman, pursuing a 50-state strategy, against the advice of the established panjandrums surrounding Hillary Clinton. Dean’s strategy contributed to big Democratic wins in congressional races, and Barack Obama’s first-term victory owed much to the organizational spade work Dean had done four years before.
Now Dean says he supports Hillary Clinton for president in 2016. He doesn’t expect to run. And yet he has scheduled appearances in Iowa and New Hampshire, which seems like a careful plan to make himself relevant over the next two years. It could happen that he will be satisfied with a role as a bit player, raising money, promoting candidates, voicing his views. But the Democratic scene remains curiously frozen by the looming presence of Hillary Clinton. If she were to falter for one reason or another, anything could happen.
Clinton has established herself as a significant personage, not merely because of her husband, but as a politician and statesman. She enjoys enormous prestige around the world and among rank-and-file Democrats. And yet she is getting older, and she showed in 2008 that she is not a perfect candidate.
Then again, the ranks of would-be challengers are thin. Joe Biden is frequently mentioned, but he would be far from a perfect candidate. He is perhaps more of a loose cannon than Dean. Andrew Cuomo is the other frequently mentioned potential candidate.
For Dean to figure he deserves a right to be considered among this group is perhaps not as far-fetched as many Vermonters might think. Then again, he has been out of politics for eight years, sounding off, making enemies, making friends. After eight years of the Obama presidency, his appeal is not likely to be as fresh and surprising as it was in 2004. Still, it’s intriguing for those who have known him over the years to watch him as he plays out his hand.
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