Is Dean done? Let's hope so

January 25, 2004|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON -- So what's next for Howard Dean after his commanding victory in the Iowa caucuses? His money and message were simply too much for his rivals, who were ... were ...

Beg pardon? What do you mean, Dr. Dean didn't win Iowa? Of course he did. Every pundit said he would. They said his lead was insurmountable. They said he was a steamroller and the other guys were tarmac. Surely he won. Definitely, he won.

He didn't win? You're sure of this? Oh. Well, then ... hallelujah.

I don't mind telling you that Howard Dean scares me. Not Howard Dean's proposals or his politics, but Howard Dean.

Maybe it's something as insubstantial as that look he gets whenever the TV camera finds him for a live interview. The eyes dart left and right with Nixonian shiftiness while he struggles for a smile as if not quite sure what one is supposed to look like. He usually settles for a tight little grimace that makes you wonder if his underwear is too tight.

Maybe it's his pattern of making ill-advised statements, stubbornly defending whatever stupid thing he has said then belatedly issuing apologies and clarifications.

Or maybe it's The Speech. You've seen The Speech, haven't you? It was delivered to his supporters in Des Moines after he'd lost Iowa. Dr. Dean, his sleeves rolled up, his fist cranking, his voice guttural, vowed to fight for the nomination in Texas, in Michigan, in South Carolina, on the moon, on Mars and on the plains of Saturn. At one point, he even let loose an inarticulate shriek of pure ... "something."

Some who were in the ballroom say the former Vermont governor's, ahem, energetic performance was perfectly keyed to the mood of the raucous crowd. Maybe so. But to those of us watching on television, he resembled nothing so much as a man losing his mind -- not a comforting thought when you consider that this guy wants access to the nuclear codes.

I think Dr. Dean was going for Winston Churchill ("We shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills ...") but he sounded more like Howard Beale from the movie Network, mad as hell and not taking it anymore.

The result, as the campaign for the Democratic nomination moves on to New Hampshire, has been a melting of Dr. Dean's support. Perhaps even worse than a slide in the polls, he is now being ridiculed, both in the online community (one person posted a remix of the speech, set to a techno beat) and by the professional smart-alecks of late-night television.

There are those who think the wounds Dr. Dean has inflicted upon his campaign are fatal. One can only hope.

I mean, you can go just so far with a campaign powered, as Dr. Dean's has been, by anger. Ask Patrick J. Buchanan if you don't believe me. It's not enough to offer people something to vote against. They also need something to vote for. The Democratic nominee, whoever it is, must provide that if he is to unseat George W. Bush.

And unseating W. is crucial. We have arrived at a pivotal point in history, brought here by external factors, true, but also brought here by this incurious fellow whose squint and smirk are too often mistaken for leadership. Under his presidency, we find our soldiers engaged in an open-ended conflict begun under misleading -- if not false -- circumstances, our moral capital diminished, our budget deficit skyrocketing, our civil liberties undermined.

These days are too fraught with peril for the Democratic Party to offer less than a credible alternative. Dr. Dean is not it, and the Democrats need to comprehend that sooner rather than later. Otherwise, prepare for Bush II, a sequel in which W., unrestrained by the need for re-election, really lets his inner ideologue out to play. Enough, then, of Howard Dean.

Because the only thing I find more frightening than the man who wants to be president is the one who already is.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.

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