Back in June, John Edwards’ campaign bought some mailing list I’d gotten on, and sent me a letter asking me to be a lead volunteer for his campaign in my hometown. I wrote back a very snarky e-mail, saying that I’d only ever headed up one political event in my life, and that was a party to watch Howard Dean’s speech earlier that month, officially declaring his candidacy. Moreover, I noted, I hadn’t promoted the event at all, but a dozen people had shown up anyway, drawn by the Internet’s mystic organizing powers. If you blog it, they will come. And come they did.
Golly, but that seems like a long time ago now. While Dean still has as good a chance as anyone at winning the Democratic nomination, it’s been nothing but bad news for his campaign since Al Gore endorsed him in early December. The media have piled on: two weeks ago, there were negative Dean cover stories in both Time and Newsweek. This atmosphere seems not to have bled Dean’s support, but the many Iowa caucus-goers who only began paying attention in December would have seen none of the hopeful Dean his supporters remember from the summer. They’ve seen “angry, unelectable” Dean.
And though it pains me to admit it, the Dean we’ve seen in recent days doesn’t look to me like a winner. He’s been reduced to obvious falsehoods like calling Wesley Clark a Republican and Dick Gephardt a warmonger. (If you seriously think a President Clark or Gephardt would govern like Bush, I’ve got a bridge over Lake Champlain to sell you.) If Dean can’t come up with anything better than that in the primaries, how will he ever convince moderate, anti-war Republicans like my grandfather, whose votes the Democrats need, that he deserves their trust?
What I liked most about Dean’s declaration speech wasn’t any of his words themselves, but his choice to open with a quote from John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity,” the Puritan shipboard sermon from which Reagan drew his signature “city on a hill” image. Like many patriotic liberals, I was sick of seeing conservatives talk as though communitarian ideals were un-American. Like many patriots who opposed Bush’s conduct in Iraq, I was sick of seeing the flag I love used as shorthand for blind support for the war and its perpetrators. And I knew that only a Democratic presidential candidate who grounded his critique of Bushism firmly in our country’s founding ideals could ever clear the air. When Dean employed Winthrop’s eloquence to remind his audience that “we must delight in each other, make each other’s conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together,” he was rejecting all I hated most about the Bush administration in definitively American terms.
Moreover, like Reagan, Dean didn’t feel he had to persuade you of his position. He employed Winthrop, not as an authority to back up his beliefs, but as the obvious standard to which all right-thinking Americans should hold. Reagan didn’t have to lecture America. He assumed they were with him, and they followed. For all George W. Bush’s “moral clarity,” he has never made that effortless identification with the values all Americans share: politicians who can do that win in landslides, not in squeakers like the 2000 election. Howard Dean at his most Reaganesque, however, could make that identification and pull off that landslide. I’ve never doubted that the other viable Democratic candidates would make broadly similar policy choices to Dean. But none has ever produced a similar Winthrop moment to convince me that he’s really tapped into the rhetorical heart of America.
Dean, alas, has never returned to the rhetorical high ground he staked out in his June declaration speech. Just after the Gore endorsement, when he was starting to assume a frontrunner’s pose, it looked like he might return there, but the attacks of his opponents and the increasingly prickly media set his campaign to playing defense, and his message got lost. Meanwhile, Kerry and Edwards rode positive campaigns and coverage right over Dean’s Iowa organization, a pattern that could repeat indefinitely if he doesn’t shake off his “angry, unelectable” image fast. Even if Dean does get the nomination, Bush’s campaign strategists have said they plan to attack Dean as pessimistic and out of the mainstream, which feeds directly off that same image. Only by returning to that Winthrop moment and others like it can Dean redefine the mainstream, which was the great possibility his campaign offered liberals.
The silent irony here is that Winthrop, whom Reagan and Dean alike pillage for rhetorical effect, was the real radical. His sermon calls its hearers to commit to Biblical economics, which demand that the people of God zero all debts periodically, lend without hope of repayment, and in emergencies share all property in common, so that at all times everyone’s needs may be met. By comparison, Dean’s pragmatic fiscal conservatism looks as Reaganesque as his rhetoric. He could quote Winthrop and beat Bush: so, if they had the vision, could other Democrats, and I’ll vote for the one who does. But remember, fellow liberals: there was a time when we Americans really dreamed big. And we could do it again.
Christopher Ashley is a junior in Silliman College.