The Washington Times
Although I don’t imagine the comparison would please either of the two of them, the politician that Howard Dean most reminds me of is Newt Gingrich. The political projects each took on are also similar, but this is a chicken-and-egg matter: Do the times call forth the man, or does the man make the times?
Let’s start with the projects: in a word, the reformation of an American political party. Mr. Gingrich rose to prominence in the then-minority House GOP on the strength of his challenge to the go-along, get-along Republican congressional establishment. Mr. Gingrich dangled a new vision before Republicans: that of an emerging congressional majority. To his predecessor as minority leader, the affable Robert Michel, such an idea had never occurred. The political status quo was an immutable given. Mr. Gingrich replaced this complacency with a vision of victory and a political strategy for achieving it.
Moreover, this was not about devising a winning strategy as if any winning strategy would do. Rather, the project was about the orchestration of the triumph of the contemporary conservative vision for America. Mr. Gingrich was a populist ideologue. He believed what he believed because he thought it was right, and one of the things that reinforced his conviction was his view that Americans by and large shared those beliefs. The people articulated them inchoately in their expressed disaffection with government. The political task was to sharpen people’s consciousness of a political solution.
This task was especially challenging given the tenacity with which the old order was intent on clinging to power and given a media environment favorably disposed toward the status quo. Mr. Gingrich attacked the former by trying to demonstrate the corruption of the Democratic reign in the House. He tried to combat the latter by finding new, alternative means of getting a message out to potential followers.
As for Mr. Dean, well, he first began to draw attention as a presidential candidate in the wake of the shocking Democratic loss of congressional seats in 2002. Among the party faithful, this loss was attributable to a cowardly unwillingness to seriously challenge the Bush White House [as well as the same White House’s unscrupulous exploitation of September 11 for political advantage]. Mr. Dean was the outsider telling establishment Democrats that they couldn’t win by acting like Republicans.
In fact, he said, he represented the “Democratic wing of the Democratic party.” There could be no clearer repudiation of the centrist image the party presented during the Clinton years. Although Mr. Dean’s ideologically charged appeal isn’t quite as wonkishly detailed across the policy spectrum as Mr. Gingrich’s was in its day, Mr. Dean could be heard calling for something like the complete repudiation of Bush policy in his total opposition to the war in Iraq and his call for a repeal of the Bush tax cuts.
To the extent that people remained attached to Mr. Bush, they were either on the receiving end of the spoils of corrupt Republican policymaking [the rich, corporate interests] or they were simply being deceived by the Bush White House and the president himself. The media were too cowardly or two cowed by their own corporate interests to point this out, and so it would fall to the Dean campaign to reinvent political outreach via the exciting medium of the Internet.
Now, on to the men themselves: Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Dean have in common the ability to speak music to the ears of their party’s hard-core faithful. In the first place, they are both smart men. [In the second place, they both know it.] And like all good preachers, they understand the importance of preaching to the choir. Nor are they just designing a pitch that will work to motivate the faithful. The two are emphatically of the faithful themselves, in a sense the living embodiment of the ideological convictions of their followers at the time. Their listeners are rapt because they are hearing what they, the listeners, would say if they could speak as well.
With a nod to the critical theorists, let me add that the discourse of each man is a totalizing discourse: All the important questions are known; the answers are a matter of simple deduction.
The core Democratic constituency with which Mr. Dean has been slowest to catch on is African-Americans. I think this has something to do with the resistance in those communities to white men who think they have all the answers.
This in turn points to another similarity between Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Dean: They are hot personalities. This heat is what most appeals to the faithful. But it doesn’t have the same effect on those who aren’t already committed. In fact, it can be distinctly off-putting. It gives rise to the question: Who does this man think he is? And: Why is he so angry?
The stereotypical Republican voter behind the election of the Gingrich majority in 1994 was the “angry white man,” supposedly epitomized by Mr. Gingrich himself. Ten years later, the “angry white man” is Howard Dean and his stereotypical Democratic party supporter.