Seriously Now

Howard Dean has been well-served by the rusty ritual of presidential contenders pausing from their campaign travels to go home and formally declare their candidacies.

Subtly but effectively, in yesterday's "announcement speech," Dean recast his candidacy from a protest campaign targeting his fellow Democrats at least as much as President Bush to a populist movement "to take our country back."

For Dean, it's his third political incarnation. During 10 years as governor of Vermont, Dean was seen as a centrist, frequently balancing the budget at the expense of social services. When Washington-based Democrats mostly declined to debate military action against Iraq, Dean emerged as the first vehemently anti-war contender.

Buoyed and, perhaps, bemused by the response he received from Democrats eager to hear someone bashing Bush, Dean presented himself as the outspoken outsider on other issues as well, claiming to be the only Democratic candidate principled and practical enough to oppose Bush's tax cuts, education program and other policies.

Within little more than a year, Dean evolved from another Paul Tsongas, fiscally conservative but socially liberal, to the new Paul Wellstone, even borrowing the late senator's line that he represented "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." The only Democratic contender consistently attacking his rivals for the nomination, Howard Dean also threatened to morph into Howard Beal -- the television anchorman from the film Network who attracted a cult following by shouting "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more."

Fortunately for himself and his party, Dean stepped back yesterday, replacing his rage with a reflective view of how his candidacy and his outlook have changed in response to what he heard on the campaign trail. Disarmingly, Dean explained, "Something changed along the way as I listened to Americans around this country."

Maybe Dean remembered the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose aging Ulysses recalled, "I am part of all that I have met." In language unusual for a presidential candidate, Dean declared, "For me, the long journey of a presidential campaign has begun with the people I have met affecting me far more than any effect I may have had on them."

Gone were the attacks on his Washington-based opponents and the claims that, as a physician and former governor, he understands health care and other domestic issues better than anyone else. Instead, Dean offered himself as the champion of everyday Americans who have lost their retirement savings and are in danger of losing their jobs and health coverage, to boot, but worry most that they are losing American democracy to wealthy special interests and secretive preemptive warriors.

Implicitly identifying Vermont as the home of town meetings, not upscale ice cream, Dean re-introduced himself in a way that encompasses his newfound identity as anti-war protestor and his actual record as a socially progressive but fiscally conservative governor.

In his only boast about his accomplishments in state government, Dean expressed his pride in "Vermont, where we balanced our budgets [and] made sure that every child had health coverage." But he devoted more time to quoting the nation's founders, including John Adams, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, and even a founder of the Massachusetts colony, John Winthrop. All were cited as believers in a citizenry who govern themselves, care for each other, and don't dream of imposing their will on the world. Making a conservative argument against world empire, Dean recalled, "Our founders implored that we were not to be the new Rome. We were not to conquer and suppress other nations. . . . We were to inspire them."

While one speech doesn't define a campaign, Dean's announcement can rescue him from being the latest in a line of losing Democratic candidates whose appeal was based on their being intellectually and morally superior to their rivals and, implicitly, their fellow citizens as well. Starting out as refreshingly free from political cant, Bill Bradley, Paul Tsongas, Eugene McCarthy and Adlai Stevenson all ended up appealing to affluent voters who saw politics as an expression of their cultural identities, not a way to improve their own lives and others'. With this announcement speech, Dean has the opportunity to reverse his predecessors' path and inspire at least a segment of those discontented voters whom he gracefully admits understand the nation's problems better than he did when he began his campaign.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and the author of Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties.

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