Hectoring Is Not Leadership

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On Feb. 27, 1860, a little-known Midwesterner named Abraham Lincoln established himself as a national candidate for President by delivering an intellectually rigorous dismantling of the constitutional arguments for slavery at Cooper Union in New York City. Ever since, politicians have stood on the same podium and given immortality their best shot. It was Howard Dean's turn last week—and his Cooper Union appearance provided an inadvertent insight into the nature of his campaign.

Dean made news on two fronts. He apologized to the sons and daughters of the Confederacy, black and white, for his politically incorrect assertion that he planned to court voters who put Confederate-flag decals on their pickup trucks. (In his speech, Lincoln also engaged in some hand-wringing about his party's inability to win support down South.) But Dean's true purpose was to announce his desire to abandon the public campaign-finance system, as George W. Bush has done, and test his campaign's amazing ability to raise money from the grass roots against the President's ability to raise money from his wealthier backers. Dean put this choice to an Internet vote of his supporters and, not surprisingly, they followed his wishes.

There was some high-minded grumbling from Dean's increasingly desperate opponents about his decision to jump the federal spending restraints—he is the first Democrat to do so since the system began in 1974—but the move made perfect sense. If he wins the nomination, Dean will be facing the best-financed presidential campaign in history, and he'll need all the financial help he can get. The probable endorsements this week from SEIU and AFSCME, the huge service and public-employees unions, will give Dean a major lift when it comes to ground support. Still, it was a bit unsettling to see the Democratic front runner use the hallowed stage at Cooper Union as the forum for an address on ... fund raising.

Dean tricked out his speech—a prepared text, delivered indifferently—with references to the power of the special interests and the need to clean house in Washington. But no amount of populist cant could disguise the fact that the speech was about process, not ideas. Indeed, Dean's whoosh of a campaign hasn't featured very much creative policy thinking. Think about it: Apart from his early stand against the war in Iraq, what has distinguished Dean's candidacy from that of the other Democrats? The propellant for the Dean surge has been almost all style and process—the Internet successes; the monthly Meetups; his stirring, plainspoken pugnacity; the joyful abandon of his campaign—and the sense of community he has aroused in his supporters.

After the Cooper Union speech, I attended a Dean Meetup at a restaurant in Manchester, N.H. It was a cross between a Rotary meeting and a 12-Step program. Attendees were encouraged to share their tales of life in the political desert before Howard came along, their experiences converting others to the cause, and their dreams for a Dean presidency. They organized phone trees, door-to-door campaigns and "visibility" at the town dump. The atmosphere in the crowded room was warm, benign and bursting with righteousness. Clifford Ross, who has been involved in New Hampshire primary campaigns since 1960, said, "I've never seen anything like this in politics." And then he made a more militant point: "It's the difference between Pericles and Demosthenes. When people heard Pericles, they said how well-spoken he was. When people heard Demosthenes, they said, 'Let's march.'"

Dean is not very well-spoken—not, at least, in terms of classical rhetoric—or particularly thoughtful, for that matter. He makes no bones about it. "When people get in my face, I tend to get in theirs," he told the New York Times last week. "I tend to be reflective rather later than sooner." This is not a very presidential quality. Last June, Dean told me that he understood he would have to grow as a candidate in order to succeed, that it was time to move his campaign beyond attacks and anger, to take a run at the vision thing. That lasted about a week. "It's hard to do vision in a crowded field where everyone's attacking you," campaign manager Joe Trippi told me last week. "But we're going to try to address the larger themes of this campaign with a series of speeches starting in a few weeks."

But one wonders about the quality of those speeches. I pressed Dean last week about his proposal for a national dialogue about race. He had talked about the need for white people to understand the impact of racism on African Americans. But what did black people need to understand? Did he plan to go into the inner cities and talk about the self-destructive culture of poverty, as Bill Clinton had? He bristled, of course: "The African-American community doesn't need any lectures from me. That's not my style." Oh, yes, it is—and Dean's future may depend on his ability to slow down, stop hectoring and lay out a vision that shows some deeper understanding of the cultural and substantive differences confronting the nation.