Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Has Dean's time come and gone?

E.J. Dionne argues that Dean was the perfect Democrat for 2003:

What Democrats needed after their disastrous losses in the 2002 election was a backbone transplant. The party's rank and file were clamoring for less timidity in confronting President Bush. The yearning was not just -- or even primarily -- about the war in Iraq. For most, it simply meant having leaders who stopped looking over their shoulders and checking Bush's popularity ratings. Democrats were sick of intimidation and capitulation.

The good doctor Dean answered the need and he soared. What he did not count on is that Democratic presidential candidates are a teachable species. They made adjustments. So did the voters.

The question is, did they really make adjustments or did they just learn how to adopt the style of Dean without the substance of Dean? That's the question I hear a lot of Dean supporters asking, yet it it is one that Dionne seems to be taking for granted. As one Dean supporter I talked to on Monday night said, "Yeah, they are all sounding like Dean. But Dean's the only one I trust to actually back up his words with action."

Dionne is right on several points: Dean did tap into a deep well of Democratic frustration, his base was smaller than expected and his message did not translate as well for those who simply weren't as frustrated as his early supporters. He hit his ceiling sometime back in the October-November time-frame but he never really noticed and adjusted. Dean and Trippi should, perhaps, have been clued into this when they failed to achieve one of Trippi's stated goals: one million supporters by the end of 2003. They made the 500,000 goal on schedule, but then stalled (the number is still only around 580,000). I noticed this back then but, like so many others, I simply didn't feel like putting a damper on the spirit of the campaign by making a point of it. My bad.

But the question remains whether Kerry, Edwards and Clark can continue on the trail-blazed by Dean or whether they are just, as Dean himself quipped several months back, "Dean-Lite".


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