WASHINGTON -- I am bereft. I yield to no one -- not a single orange-cap-wearing, twentysomething vegan Deaniac -- in my disappointment over Howard Dean's Iowa debacle.
Sure, he was their hope. But he was mine too. Dean as Democratic nominee promised not just happiness, but glory: a Republican landslide of biblical proportions. Big majority in the House. And so many coattailled new senators that Bush could have begun repopulating the Supreme Court with 42-year-old conservatives (like Miguel Estrada) who would serve forever.
The future looked so bright, and now it is so clouded. Why, even the White House could not bring itself to give up the Dean dream. The president's State of the Union address contained not one but two zings at Dean, although by the time the speech was delivered, Dean was no longer even a likely Democratic nominee. Bush said first that we are safer with Saddam caught, then added, to sustained applause, that America would never ask others (i.e. the United Nations) for permission to defend itself.
Twenty-four hours after Iowa, these rejoinders were already anachronisms.
Who is to blame for this lost dream? Conservatives could start, as they love to, by blaming themselves. We knew what a disaster Dean would be as a presidential candidate at a time when Democrats were still lost in the clouds and dreaming. When the polls showed him ahead nationally, and in Iowa, and in New Hampshire (by a ridiculous margin of 30 points), we could not shut up.
National Review put Dean on its cover with the caption ``Please Nominate This Man.'' Republican strategists, and the occasional insider report from the White House, could not conceal their glee at Dean's prospective nomination. I too am guilty, confessing week after week on TV that he was my candidate.
As Dean began to slide, I was hoping against hope that he could just hang on -- project sanity -- long enough to win Iowa and New Hampshire and wrap up the nomination before the Democrats could come to their senses. Alas, the democratic process worked.
Oh yes, there were other factors. History, for one; Dean himself, for another. Saddam's capture gave psychological satisfaction, if not completion to the Iraq War. Of course, fighting continues against the insurgency. But with Saddam in prison, even the antiwar crowd cannot deny that the regime is finished.
Iraq remains a political liability for the president. The continuing casualties have turned the war on terror from a winning political issue into a problematic one. Iraq's political effect is to neutralize foreign policy as a strong Bush positive, draining it of salience and shifting the center of gravity of the election contest toward more domestic concerns. Nonetheless, as Iowa showed, there is zero payoff, post-Saddam, from raving that you were the firstest and mostest against the war.
Dean, of course, compounded his problem by his reaction to Saddam's capture. The problem, however, was not even the substance of his reaction, but the sourness, the certainty, the smugness with which it was delivered.
As the gaffes piled up, it became obvious that Dean's deepest problem was not his positions but his temperament. Anyone who still has any doubts about this must be one of the three people in America who has not seen, and recoiled from, Dean's unhinged rant after the Iowa loss.
Interestingly, observers in the hall, watching the interplay of Dean with the frenzy of his volunteers, did not find The Scream particularly disturbing. It was television that made it catastrophic.
Which confirms my long-held view that Dean's ultimate weakness was that he was the classic anti-McLuhan candidate. I suggested back on Sept. 5 that ``Dean's passion is well suited to the early campaign ... the one-on-one, town-hall-meeting, retail-level campaign so far. Dean's problem is television, famously a cool medium. ... As the campaign becomes less retail and more national -- and therefore more televised -- Dean's rise will be challenged.'' What I could not have predicted was that he would actually explode on national television.
Dean was always passion and anger. Passion and anger don't wear well on television. They are too hot and, under the pressure of the first defeat in his entire political career, he simply combusted -- into a manic eruption that within 24 hours had been memorialized in song.
When the late-night comics call you ``a hockey dad" (Letterman) and ``the Incredible Hulk" (Conan O'Brien) and ``Mr. Rogers with rabies" (Leno), you've got trouble. The most difficult thing to recover from in politics is ridicule.
I'm not laughing, however. I'm cryin'. The dream is gone.