I was there at the beginning of the Dean phenomena and I can personally attest that the anger towards Bush amongst Democrats was dwarfed by their anger towards their leadership. Dean has said that when he first started campaigning he was surprised at the level of frustration he found within the Democratic rank-n-file. He went out to talk about issues like health care but discovered that many of those he talked to were more interested in venting their anger at the party leadership.
The first time I ever saw Dean speak was at the DNC Winter Meeting in early 2003 (transcript). The opening line of that speech was, "What I want to know is why in the world the Democratic party leadership is supporting the president's unilateral attack on Iraq." It was a full-on salvo aimed directly at the heart of the party in the very confines of a party leadership conference.
It brought down the house!
Dean sensed what most other Democratic leaders were not sensing and he seized on that frustration and nearly rode it to the nomination. It may be that he ultimately failed in the final days because he won the bigger victory: he set out to wake up the party to its failed policy of appeasement and the party woke up!
When I initially threw my support behind Dean it was based on three desires, each in descending order of desirability:
- To see Dean elected.
- To see someone like Dean elected.
- To see Bush removed from office.
Ultimately, though, the were all driven by a desire to get the party to take off the tutus and start acting like they cared about winning.
I was hard on John Kerry for much of 2003 specifically because he seemed to epitomize this appeasement policy. He was the poster-child for a leadership that just didn't understand what was going on out in the Heartland. He even went so far as to suggest that Democrats needed to "get over" the 2000 election. Only a Democratic politician divorced from reality would say something like that and not understand how alienating it would be.
Fortunately, Kerry seems to have absorbed the message of the Dean movement, at least to the extent that he now has a better appreciation of the anger and frustration Democrats have had with their leadership. Dean put the scare into him and I think he responded by digging deep into himself for the fighting spirit that held him up while leading Vietnam veterans to protest that war.
Now, I could hold it against Kerry that he took so long to "wake up". But recall that I wrote above about how even Dean was surprised by the anger in the Democratic rank-n-file. He didn't originally set out to be a firebrand, leading the pitchfork crowd against the Democratic tower. He was just separated enough from the inner-sanctum of Democratic politics to recognize what was going on before others did.
If I can "forgive" Dean for not recognizing the problem sooner than why can't I "forgive" John Kerry?
I set out 16 months ago to give Howard Dean the megaphone he needed to wake up the party. We did just that.
Howard Dean has won.
Now it's time for John Kerry to win.