Angry, Angry Howard

Posted: Nov 24, 2003 12:00 AM

At an afternoon union rally in New York City, Howard Dean is trying to be uplifting. He is talking about progress made in the civil-rights revolution, despite awful setbacks. Dean recalls how we "lost" Martin Luther King Jr., "lost" Robert Kennedy and "lost" schoolgirls in the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing in the 1960s, but before he can finish his riff with a burst of inspiring rhetoric, a voice rings out from the back of the hall: "Let's 'lose' George Bush!"

And so it goes on Planet Dean. Even when the former Vermont governor tries to inspire, he provokes from his audience a call -- by implication -- for the assassination of the president of the United States. The rule for a Dean crowd is: Don't be uplifting if you can be angry instead. Dean has sprinted to his lead in the Democratic primary race by tapping into the deep vein of liberal bitterness at President Bush. A Dean crowd doesn't just clap and wave signs -- it bristles.

The New York union rally doesn't represent a typical Dean audience. Dean's momentum and his prodigious capacity to seem sincerely hacked-off have won him the endorsements of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union, huge unions with large minority memberships. Thus, a series of Dean union rallies around the country in recent days that have allowed him to tap into a new constituency.

Heretofore, Dean rallies have had the demographic of a Phish concert: young, white liberals. It has made for a certain callow feel to Dean's candidacy: Ben & Jerry are mad, and they're not going to take it anymore! The crowd in the hall of New York's local SEIU 32BJ skews older, and black and Hispanic. On this day, Dean himself is diverse by proxy.

"Dean is one of us," local SEIU kingmaker Dennis Rivera says, pointing out that Dr. Dean was a "health care worker" just like the members of Rivera's union -- never mind that none of them are Yale-educated doctors from well-off Manhattan families. What Dean truly shares with his audience is anger. The poster of Dean that people wave in the hall has a picture of him, not smiling like most politicians, but looking belligerent. When he comes on stage, with the sleeves of his white dress shirt rolled up, he looks like someone spoiling for a fight.

AFSCME head Gerald McEntee, by way of introducing Dean, pronounces Bush "anti-worker, anti-family and anti-democratic." Dean takes it from there. Referring to the tax cuts, he says Bush has given $3 trillion to Enron and Ken Lay. He compares Bush's record on jobs to Herbert Hoover's, and accuses him of playing on the nation's racial divisions. And he, of course, scores Bush for allegedly misleading the nation into war in Iraq.

For a candidate whose foremost issue is opposition to the Iraq War, Dean has little to say about foreign policy. He mentions a roster of foreign countries -- France, Italy, Israel, etc. -- only to say that they have universal health coverage and the United States doesn't. His analysis of the North Korean crisis is that Bush just "doesn't like" Kim Jong Il enough to negotiate with him -- a risible claim. His criticism of the current conduct of the Iraq War is mostly about its expense diverting resources from domestic priorities.

But policy is beside the point. Dean is anti-Bush rage personified. He expresses and empowers the crowd's discontent because it seems possible that his "people power" campaign can leverage its anger to victory. At the end of his speech, Dean tells the crowd, "Power to change the country is in your hands, not mine." Then he begins a chant: "You have the power!" He points with both hands out into the crowd each time he says it, like a conductor working his orchestra into a smashing finale.

Dean, with his well-funded, energetic campaign, is the maestro of anti-Bushism.