“If Only He Hadn’t Listened to … Me”

Sometimes the conventional wisdom forgets itself (or forgets what it was wise about). In a piece last October, Jodi Wilgoren of The New York Times described “the central dilemma and critical balancing act” of Howard Dean’s campaign as: “How to galvanize the alienated newcomers and ideological diehards who have fueled his insurgency without frightening off the party leaders and moderate voters essential in a general election.”

In fairness to Wilgoren, she was only reflecting the standard spiel of reporters, pundits, and political analysts at the time. Shortly thereafter, The Washington Post parroted the idea: “the trick for Dean is to rail against Washington in public and rally insiders behind the scenes”. Everyone agreed that having shot to the top of the polls last fall as an insurgent, anti-Washington candidate, Dean now needed to reverse himself and court the established Democratic leaders who could help him broaden his appeal.

Dean was clearly paying attention. He dutifully went out and got endorsements from Al Gore, Bill Bradley, Tom Harkin, SEIU, AFSCME, and a host of members of congress. He even took time out from campaigning in Iowa a day before the caucuses for a photo op with Jimmy Carter in Georgia.

Now fast forward to this week. Dean disappoints in Iowa. And here is Wilgoren, explaining, in effect, that Dean fared poorly because he took her advice. The new wisdom: “the endorsements from Mr. Harkin, Iowa’s most popular Democrat; former Vice President Al Gore; two of the nation’s largest unions; and 35 members of Congress seemed to complicate Dr. Dean’s message more than help spread it.”

Got that?

First Dean is supposed to reach out to party insiders. Then when he does, and loses, we’re told that his big mistake was … reaching out to party insiders.

If Campaign Desk were Howard Dean, we’d be tempted to take President Bush’s cue and ignore the papers altogether.


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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.