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Dean: The Outsider as Insider? No

The emerging conventional wisdom about Dean's fade seems to be that, as he began to collect big-name endorsements, he lost the appeal that drove his campaign in the first place, which was his outsider status.

Terry Neal made this point in the Washington Post this morning:

Dean was running a somewhat contradictory campaign, one based partly on inevitability and partly on insurgency. At campaign events, Dean spoke passionately about being an outsider, while being introduced by Hollywood millionaires like Martin Sheen and Rob Reiner, and by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a consummate Washington insider. To some extent, tonight's loss could be good news for Dean because it may make him reassess how he's run his campaign. It allows him to play the underdog role again, which is where he seems to be at his strongest.

Josh Marshall and Taegen Goddard of the Political Wire made similar points last night. Political Wire says "the 'outsider' campaign had trouble assimilating insiders."

I'm just going with my instincts here, and will defer to anyone who spent a lot of time talking to Iowa voters or dissecting the exit polls to reach this conclusion, but I don't buy it. I think that the basic trajectory of the Dean campaign, which was to build up some enthusiasm around his voice and his issues, and then consolidate it by picking up credible support from established (tho not necessarily "establishment") figures was very smart, and could have sent both the messages that the campaign wants to send: first, that Dean is passionate about fixing what's gone wrong in this country, and second, that he's not nutty or marginal, but is a serious, respected guy. It is impressive that these were endorsements that he earned, through hard work and an impressive campaign, not the normal pro forma endorsements such as some Kerry's very early backing.

The problem with the theory is that the whole insider/outsider distinction as it applies within the Democratic party is kind of contrived, and is almost certainly the farthest thing from the minds of most voters. Right now, we're all outsiders to the power structure of the United States. What makes Tom Harkin a "consumate insider" right now? He's as powerless as me. (Not really, but hey, my endorsement doesn't matter either.) What makes Martin Sheen an insider, besides the fact that he plays one, sort of, on TV? Are Bradley and Gore insiders? If so, isn't the six-term moderate governor of Vermont, former vice-chair of the National Governors Association and cautious supporter of welfare reform, equally an insider? And why does it matter?

I think one of Dean's mistakes -- though not his biggest -- was in trying to draw some insider/outsider distinction within the Democratic Party itself, exemplified by his attack on Clinton. I sort of understand the two camps within the Democratic Party, although I've lost interest in it, but that's because I've spent a lot of my life thinking about it, and sometimes even get paid to think about it. But the average voter -- by which I mean simply the voter who's got a life, and doesn't really have time to focus on who he or she is going to vote for until a week or two before the event -- doesn't think about this distinction at all, ever, and doesn't want to have to choose sides.

Again, this is pure speculation, but I think the only thing that happened to Dean was that the intense, almost obsessive nature of his campaign was kind of a turnoff to those later voters. Thirty-five hundred identically dressed kids from places like Evergreen State College filled with messianic certainty can be cool, or it can be a nightmare in a state like Iowa. The thing that always turned me off about the Dean campaign was its self-absorbtion, the idea that the campaign itself somehow transcended ordinary politics. Joe Trippi often says that Dean is unique in that he doesn't talk about himself, doesn't say, "vote for me, and I'll do the following..." Instead, he talks about the people. It's People-Powered Howard.

That's sort of true. But it kind of reminds me of Senator Dale Bumpers, in his great defense of Bill Clinton in the impeachment trial, when he said, "When they tell you it's not about sex, it's about sex." When they tell you it's not about Me, but about The People, it's usually about Me. By talking about his campaign as if he were merely the corporeal representative of some mystical communal force, Dean neglected to do the more basic work of politics, which is to talk about himself, what kind of president he would be, and what he would do. It's been about process. It's been about talking about reaching voters instead of just speaking to them.

In noting that late-deciding voters overwhelmingly went to Kerry and Edwards, most analysts have assumed that this meant that Dean had a bad last few weeks, suggesting that perhaps those late endorsements such as Harkin's hurt him. I don't think that's the case at all. Dean could have had a terrific last few weeks, and still failed to get the late-deciders. That's because late-deciders are fundamentally different people than people who decided early on. They are less deeply engaged with politics, they dislike Bush but can probably go days without thinking about him (wish I could do that), and they want to participate just as citizens, picking a candidate that appeals to them, voting, and going home. The Dean campaign probably seemed like too much of a big commitment -- you have to either join the orange hats or not. And Americans don't generally want to join anyone's orange-hatted Perfect Storm. (Who wears orange unless they're hunting?) Obviously, the voters that a Democrat will have to reach in November are even more like that.

If the Outsider-as-Insider analysis is right, then Dean's task isn't that hard. He just sheds the insider trappings and goes back to the outsider role, which is what I think he'll try to do. (Although I heard last night that he's taken the opposite tack in New Hampshire, running an ad that portrays him as the moderate governor of a neighboring state.) If I'm right, I'm not sure what his best move is.

But I've learned over the years to beware candidates that seem to Transcend the Rules of Politics. Just as in the economy, the normal rules have a way of roaring back, and transcendent politics will break your heart.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 20, 2004 | Permalink


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One comment: I never interpreted an attack on Clinton specifically. I know where this comes from, but the text actually indicates the opposite. There are very few differences between Dean's and Clinton's economic policies as they were presented in the campaign, which was an offshoot, to a certain extent, of Robert Reich's "The Wealth of Nations".

This is part of Dean's problem. Even though these policy speeches are vetted, there are always turns of a phrase that end up being interpreted in 2 opposite ways.

Posted by: Heath | Jan 20, 2004 1:50:52 PM

Superb analysis, Mark. The Dean people -- like the party inside/outside diviners -- are not like most regular folks, and easily lose sight of how regular folks think about politics.

But missing from your analysis is anything related to Dean's personality. The guy's negatives were very high, and it seems clear so far that he leaves the vast majority of Dem voters cold -- or worse. How a candidate with this level of appeal can or should win is a mystery.

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Jan 20, 2004 3:28:10 PM

I agree that the cw on the insider/outsider issue is off base. Your point that late deciding voters are different than early deciding ones is also right on. The question is what does that mean for New Hampshire?

My guess is that Dean's current support won't erode much there and the late deciders will be split three ways (Kerry, Edwards due the bump from Iowa and Clark). This could leave Dean with an unspectacular but critical win and an equally critical race for second.

Posted by: Stuart | Jan 20, 2004 4:12:33 PM

A pretty good assessment of what went wrong with Dean in Iowa. But the post leans on the kind of suggestive but often misleading quips--here the reference to "places like" to Evergreen State College (training ground for activists like Rachel Corrie, although I don't think the retired Catholic school teacher I know from Fairfield County, Ct, last seen handing out Dean lit at the Metro North Station, is an alum)--that have come all too easily to political prose stylists of mainstream press corps. Further, it was not so much a transcendence of "ordinary" politics that drew people into the Dean campaign, I don't think. It was the prospect of transcending politics as usual, and getting involved (and I'm sure a few Evergreen Students did, but from what I have heard, Dean was surely too moderate for that crowd) in the process to try to make it happen. It does seem that Dean and company depended too much on enthusiasm and committment and may have forgotten, or perhaps didn't figure out in time, that campaigning is an art that calls for delicacy at times. But that is a different thing than saying that it was this enthusiasm and committment, per se, that did them in Iowa. The distinction, in any event, seems easy to lose track of when messianically certain students from Evergreen come into the picture. Dean aside, don't we want to get those late deciders more engaged, more enthusiastic? Or do we want it always to come down to which candidate is packaged just right and tidy, for those who haven't given it all much thought?

Posted by: R Wells | Jan 20, 2004 5:08:33 PM

This was a very bright and lucid analysis. One thing I think last night showed that there are two sets of people most Americans generally tune out, not out of animosity or as a political statement, but because that is who they are, and they like it that way:

1) mainstream press hacks (though anti-Dem rhetoric does trickle down) whose analysis is pure unadulterated crap, and merely (with very few exceptions) recycled vomit from the Beltway CW swamp

2) Us! Most Americans could care less about blogs, internet etc. We love them. And will continue love them and use them. But we don't reflect squat and we don't reflect the political mentality of many voters. Hell, right now Kos and Atrios only get about 120,000 visits per day (and that includes overlaps). And most of these people won't become blog users. I have no doubt we will change the world of politics (and the Dean campaign is an example), but revolutions take time, and they always have and always will, despite rapid technological innovation and change.

It's a good thing to keep in mind...

Posted by: Hank Essay | Jan 20, 2004 6:08:46 PM

I don't know what happened in Iowa, but I live in New Hampshire and I've seen Dean in action here several times (going back to May 2003) and I just don't see the "angry man" that the media are always talking about. I did once see Dean pretend to be angry--and it was awfully phony. He's impassioned, but not at all off-putting to me.

I've been amazed at his equanimity, actually, because he's been run ragged by a tight schedule. I don't know how the guy keeps his cool.

I went to an event in New Hampshire last Wednesday when he was at his best. I saw one hokey piece in the media that said something like "Howard Dean got red in the face when he was talking about Wesley Clark." (I also saw the event written up correctly by James Ridgeway in the Village Voice. For video, see http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0403/nh5.php and scroll down to "Ex-Vermont Governor Shows Confidence, Defies Media's Harried Portrait.")

I can see how 18- to 25-year-olds would rather watch something crappy on TV than go to a caucus on a Monday night. And I can see how "normal" Iowans got tired of strangers descending on them and plaguing them to vote for Howard Dean.

There is a solid core to Howard Dean that could appeal to most Americans, I believe. We'll just have to see if it comes out.

Posted by: V. J. Meagher | Jan 20, 2004 6:31:37 PM

You're hitting me a little hard these days, R Wells! True, the Evergreen State College thing is a rhetorical excess, and doesn't have anything to do with Rachel Corrie -- I should have just said, out of state. Garance Franke-Ruta of the American Prospect, an actual journalist, captured some of the dynamic I was merely speculating
about, on www.prospect.org/weblog:

Many of the Perfect Stormers seemed out of place in Iowa, and the neighbor-to-neighbor strategies employed to get out the vote for Edwards and Kerry seemed to work better than the flood of outsiders brought in by Dean and Gephardt. The Deanies I ran into at the Kentucky Fried Chicken outside Newton had attitudes that suggested they might not have been the best advertisement for their candidate. "I feel like I'm in a foreign country," said one Perfect Stomer wearing a lilac windbreaker. "I'm off the net."

I'll also quote this, from an e-mail from a recent college graduate who went to Iowa for Dean, and remains a very strong supporter:

One lady from cedar
Rapids...told me she used to be for Howard Dean. But when she heard Edwards speak and was so swayed by his slick personality and aquafresh charm, she was swayed into his camp. She told me she was turned off by the amount of money Dean had spent in Iowa and showed me some ostentatious and loud mailings she had received from his campaign. An envelope designed to look and open like an L.L. Bean backpack? Say what? I convinced her that I had come to Iowa out of my own volition, walking around in the damp, freezing weather because I believed so strongly in the urgency of Dean’s candidacy, his doctor's sensitivity to the inter-connectedness of what ails America, and the gusto he's brought back to politics.

Dean began to lose in the polls because Iowans grew tired of being roused by that gusto. They started to question the validity of having their emotions stirred by such a forceful presence. They began to doubt whether the government was as bogged down with special interests as he said it was. Those tirades which got the media's attention and propelled him to the front of the race for a good period of time backfired.

That supports the view that Kerry and Edwards were better packaged for the late-deciders. But I think that's a little unfair. Edwards may be a little more telegenic than Dean, but not much, and he's really worked hard to have the most substantive approach to the issues in the entire field. When I say that he's more appealing to late-deciders, I don't mean that he's totally superficial. And anyone who participated in the Iowa caucuses made a pretty deep commitment, not just pulling a lever on the way to work, but spending a few hours in a very substantive exercise in public deliberation. That's already a lot to ask.

Posted by: Mark Schmitt | Jan 20, 2004 10:56:41 PM

I suspect you're right about much of this. But I have a couple of disagreements. I suspect you are right that bringing in all those outsiders backfired for the Dean campaign in Iowa -- it was a turn-off for late voters. But then you talk about how you have been turned off by the Dean campaign's self-absorption. There seems to be a non-sequitur here. If late voters are less attentive voters, would they even be so aware of the self-reflexive nature of the campaign, and of Trippi's pronouncements about the candidate, and of the idea that the Dean campaign was too big of a commitment? Is that what turned them off? In fact, you suggest (or at least I think) that the late voter is more likely to be a more personality-oriented voter, and if that is the case, you shouldn't underplay the fact that Dean allowed himself to be defined personally in very negative terms by some of his competitors and a press willing to play along for some news -- Dean is angry, Dean is gaffe-prone, Dean is unelectable. Dean seems to have had very high unfavorable ratings in Iowa, and I seriously doubt that had anything to do with the nature of his campaign. The character of his campaign is just more insider stuff to which most people do not pay much attention. Two other points on that insider stuff: as someone who cares about it, I think you do a disservice to Dean by mischaracterizing his campaign as aiming to transcend ordinary politics, rather than trying to change the way ordinary politics is done. It has not been nearly as mystical as you make it sound. And I think it is undeniable that even if Dean ends up losing, he has significantly transformed the way Democrats are doing politics, making them stand up for themselves in a way that they have failed to do for the last couple of years. Lastly, there is a difference between telling voters what you will do as president and participating in the lamentable super-personalized politics that most candidates participate in, talking more about their biography and who they are as people than about what they would do or what they care about politically.

Posted by: Jeff L. | Jan 20, 2004 11:45:37 PM

Decembrist: I didn't need to bring R. Corrie in to make my point; that was an excess. I detected a whiff of what bothered me most about the news coverage of Dean, which was a cynicism about and stereotyping of those deemed to be his core supporters, and I pounced. Your clarifications help, especially since now the argument seems to relate to Iowa, specifically. On Edwards, do we know that it was his substance that got people going his way??

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