Are Voters in the Mood for an Angry Democrat?

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It's the independence day parade in Amherst, N.H., and John Forbes Kerry, the elegant Senator from Massachusetts, is wearing a button-down, long-sleeve tattersall shirt, khaki pants and topsiders. He is surrounded by about 100 supporters, many of them young people toting signs. There is a Kerry truck blaring music. "It doesn't get much better than this," he says, a statement meant to convey enthusiasm but which comes off as Kerry's awkward guess at what a politician ought to be saying in such circumstances.

Other candidates—Joe Lieberman, Bob Graham—are in the parade, but you would hardly know it. This event is mano a mano: Kerry vs. Dr. Howard Dean, the former Governor of Vermont. Dean has about the same number of supporters as Kerry—but they're younger, more enthusiastic and much more creative. Some are wearing white doctors' coats, brandishing stethoscopes and passing out tongue depressors with the words "Rx for America: Howard Dean." The Governor, however, seems unprepared for parading. He's wearing navy pinstripe suit pants, a blue business shirt and his perennial black penny loafers. When we shake hands, he blurts the first thing that comes to mind: "It's good we're not right behind the horses. That always happens in Vermont—it's a message, I guess. You have to watch your step, which is a pain because you want eye contact with the people." When the parade begins, Dean takes off—running, and I mean sprinting—from clump to clump of parade watchers. His face grows red; he sweats; people hand him Dixie cups of water as if he were in a marathon. John Kerry, by contrast, occasionally breaks into a stately jog, from one side of the street to the other.

Beware of parade metaphors. And yet ... Kerry jogging artfully, Dean running artlessly—that's pretty much where the race stands in New Hampshire these days. There are other candidates and other states. Congressman Dick Gephardt has support in Iowa and could easily win the nomination, especially if Kerry and Dean murder each other over the same subset of white, well-educated voters. And so Kerry vs. Dean has become the preliminary bout before the Democrats' main event. It is a struggle that revolves around a single issue that mixes style and substance. The issue is Iraq. The style question is, How angry should Democrats be about what George W. Bush has done there?

Dean is winning on both counts. His opposition to the war is looking less radical every day. His style—his imprudence, his plain talk—just doesn't sound like the other guys. At the Dems' winter meeting in Washington, he arrived at the podium and, instead of lapsing into the usual thank-you blather, blasted off like a rocket-propelled grenade: "What I want to know is why so many Democrats in Washington aren't standing up against Bush's unilateral war in Iraq." This was followed by several more withering "What I want to knows" and then the introduction: "My name is Howard Dean, and I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." The crowd went nuts.

There is a misapprehension that the Dean phenomenon was created by the Internet. It was created by Dean's mouth—and by the fury of many Democrats at what they perceive to be a radical Republican Administration. Several weeks ago, at a Dean speech in San Francisco, a woman approached me and said, "I've been a moderate, Clinton-Gore Democrat, but no more." I asked her why. She said, "Grover Norquist," referring to the Republican taxophobe lobbyist who helped forge the President's tax cuts. "He said, ‘Bipartisanship is date rape.' Well, I don't like being raped."

Such sentiments have been misinterpreted by assorted Beltway savants as a leftward lurch by Democratic Party activists; it seems more a reaction to the rightward lurch of the Republicans. Dean, who has been mischaracterized as the reincarnation of George McGovern, is certainly no traditional liberal or even a traditional dove. "I told the peace people not to fall in love with me," he told me over breakfast in Manchester, N.H., last week. He said he had opposed Vietnam, but he had supported the first Gulf War, the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, and the war in Afghanistan. In the 1980s he had "mixed feelings" about Ronald Reagan's support for the contras in Nicaragua and opposed a unilateral nuclear freeze. "I'm not a pacifist. I believe there are times when pre-emptive force is justified, but there has to be an immediate threat, and there just wasn't in this case."

On July 5, I watched Dean speak to several hundred people—an enormous crowd at this stage of the campaign—at a lake house near Munsonville, in southwestern New Hampshire. He spent most of his time talking about the need for a balanced budget. He defended his opposition to gun control and his support for the death penalty. He swung toward the protectionist left on trade, but most of his other positions could easily have been embraced by a "New" Democrat. The crowd seemed not to notice his shopworn moderation, though. Dean had been bold on the war—and so freshness was assumed on every other issue. "This guy has everything that Bill Bradley didn't," said George Scott, a Bradley organizer in 2000. "He has a clear message. He says what he thinks. I don't know how he'll do in the South, but he's very appealing to me." I asked Scott about the other Dems. "Edwards is too pretty, not enough experience. Gephardt does nothing for me. Lieberman's too conservative." What about Kerry? "He's polished. But I don't feel comfortable with him ... I feel as if he has a different kind of blood than me." Blue blood? "Just different."

A sense of aloofness has always been a Kerry problem—"You shouldn't hold John's looks against him," former Senator Bob Kerrey once told me—and Dean's chesty informality has only exacerbated Kerry's air of dour Brahmin solemnity. In truth, he isn't so much aloof as he is courtly, in a formal, afternoon-tea sort of way. The shoutathon of modern politics discomforts him. He is a serious, experienced, thoughtful man; his policy speeches have been among the best of any Democrat's. But he is also a cautious man who has surrounded himself with an overstuffed stable of consultants and pollsters—the very same geniuses who brought you the dreadful 2000 Gore campaign and the Democrats' even more dreadful 2002 campaign. Their presence reinforces Kerry's tendency to carefully edit every word he utters. His campaign seems massaged, tactical—an act of marketing rather than of conviction. His Senate vote authorizing the war in Iraq is Exhibit A. Unlike Dean, Kerry has longtime antiwar credentials. He investigated the Reagan Administration's support for the contras and opposed the first Gulf War. He turned more hawkish in the 1990s, supporting Bosnia and Kosovo and of course Afghanistan, but the question persists: Did Kerry vote for this war with his heart or with his ambition?

Kerry points out that he gave Bill Clinton the very same authority in 1998. But he has never found the simple, direct words to explain his vote, or much else, on the stump. He insists that his rhetorical style is judicious, diplomatic, presidential—a contrast not just to Dean, but also to Bush's occasional cowpoke eruptions. Rowdiness, however, could well be the coin of the realm this time.

A good example: two weeks ago, Bush was asked about the guerrilla resistance in Iraq and said, "Bring 'em on." Kerry's response was two paragraphs of polenta: Bush's words had been "unwise, unworthy of the office" and so forth. As a Vietnam War hero, Kerry had the credentials to go ballistic. He could have said, "No one who's actually been in combat would ever say such a thing. You don't invite the enemy to attack your troops." But he didn't. After July 4, both Kerry and Dean held campaign-strategy retreats—and then staged a nifty little minuet, reversing styles in an attempt to broaden their appeal. Kerry attempted anger. At a house party in Concord on Tuesday, he said he was "angry" no fewer than seven times and added that if Bush is to be beaten, "We're going to have to get up off our asses and work." I think I gasped. On Thursday, he took a roundhouse swing at Bush over Iraq: "It's been days since the President was flown to an aircraft carrier"—note the passive tense—"to announce that hostilities in Iraq had ended ... It's time for the President to ... tell the truth, that the war is continuing and so are the casualties."

That same day, Dean attempted presidentiality. He demanded the resignations of those in the Administration who had misled the President on his State of the Union assertion—since retracted—that Iraq had acquired uranium from an African country. He tried to do this carefully, diplomatically. He wouldn't use the word lie. He wouldn't specify Dick Cheney as the culprit, although the Vice President was clearly the person he had in mind. Uncharacteristically, he stumbled over words and didn't seem at all comfortable. Kerry's modest sidle toward aggression made the evening news; Dean's didn't. Kerry had "won" the day—for a change—and what promises to be a very entertaining battle has now been joined.