Campaign Crawlers

Wising Up to Dean

He's fading because he can only talk down to union rank-and-file.

By 1.18.04

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IOWA -- Going into this evening's caucus, Howard Dean has been slipping in the Iowa polls. Ten days ago he had a nice lead over Dick Gephardt. Just yesterday, he had fallen to third in a Des Moines Register poll.

One standard explanation is the gaffe factor, that Dean's many misstatements have made a lot of Democrats nervous. Undoubtedly, that is a big part of the reason. Here's another: Dean is bit of a charlatan, and an arrogant one to boot. Some likely caucus-goers, it seems, are getting wise to it.

On Tuesday, January 6, I followed the Dean campaign around to what would easily be called events for the upper-middle class. The first took place at the Summerset Inn and Winery in Indianola, the second at the middle-class house of Jim Bennau, and the third at the very upscale house of Ned Chiodo. Chiodo, not incidentally, is a former Democratic State Representative and now a lobbyist with clients such as Aventis, McDonald's, and Wells Fargo. At these events, Dean usually wore his suit jacket. His manner was low key. He delivered his talks with none of his famed animation.

Contrast that with the way he presented himself at the American Legion the following morning. Among a heavily union crowd, Dean had the suit jacket off and the shirt sleeves rolled up. His speech was fiery: angry tone, elevated voice, finger stabbing the air, with his face reddening off and on.

Interesting, isn't it, that among a crowd that is well educated, Dean is soft-spoken, almost as though he wants to gently persuade the people present. But with a union crowd -- i.e., lots of people with nothing more than a high school education -- Dean acts as though he can easily play upon their emotions. And it's not just his manner which suggests manipulation. Consider his remarks on North Korea:

This President is about to allow North Korea to become a nuclear power because he won't negotiate with North Korea, because half of the people in his administration have convinced him that North Korea is gonna collapse of its own accord. But while we're waiting, suppose they do develop a nuclear bomb, and suppose they sell that to terrorist or other rogue nations in order to get hard currency while the administration is blockading North Korea. I'd like to not take that chance because that's another national security emergency that we might face that could be avoided now if we had a president who was willing to negotiate instead of wait until the last minute and then send troops.

Now, everyone in America not comatose knows that North Korea already has a nuclear weapon, and was developing one long before Bush came into office. Apparently Dean was hoping that this "uneducated" crowd would not be well-informed on North Korea, and thus he could scare them into thinking that Bush's ineptness is letting Kim Jong-il make the world a much more dangerous place. But it fell flat. The applause was much more tepid than during most of the speech, and I noticed a fair amount of confused faces in the crowd. Perhaps sensing that he hadn't succeeded in pulling a fast one (not to mention that TV cameras were present), Dean followed up with an acknowledgment that Kim Jong-il already has nuclear weapons: "The North Koreans will give up their atomic weapons, their nuclear weapons if we cooperate with the Chinese and give the Chinese a signal to make the deal they want to make."

In fairness, Dean is just like most politicians in that he will pander to specific audiences. However, Dean has chosen the wrong way to pander to union members. He has made the mistake of equating "uneducated" with "stupid." While most don't have college degrees, union members can be quite cagey and skeptical. I suspect they aren't overly sold on a candidate giving them a confusing, if not misleading, message about North Korea's nuclear capabilities.

Nor are they sold on Dean's inability to let sleeping dogs lie. During the question and answer period, Dean fired off this gem:

My Democratic opponents and the right-wing of the Republican Party gave me a hard time a couple of weeks ago after they caught Saddam Hussein. And I said, "I applauded our military, 'cause they are the best, and they did a great job, but we are not safer now that Saddam is caught." Well, you haven't heard much lately since fighter jets are now having to escort commercial airliners into United States air space. We're at level orange, and twenty-three more troops have been killed since Saddam was caught.

If Dean is so arrogant and insecure that he can't argue the Administration is dropping the ball in the War Against Terrorism without first reminding people of one of his biggest gaffes, what does that say about his ability to be president? Indeed, Dean came off like a kid on the playground taunting, "See? I was right! Nyahh, nyahh!" I wondered how many members in the audience were thinking the same thing. Again, the applause was tepid, suggesting they weren't impressed.

To get a sense of how Dean's speech went over, I began interviewing those in attendance. Sitting next to me was Fred, a retired member of the plumbers and pipefitters union. He was undecided, but leaning heavily toward Gephardt. He told me that there "were a lot of undecideds in the unions."

Next I ran into Don, who had Dean stickers on his sweater. Surely a Dean supporter, I thought. But no, he was a county chair, so he was not expressly supporting anyone. When asked if he was leaning toward any of the candidates, he said either Gephardt or Dean. He was a former UAW and Musicians' union member. When asked if Dean had done anything to win him over that morning, he replied, "I'm not sure."

Indeed, of the Dean supporters I talked to, most were not union members. Typical was Roberta, who worked in management at a steel plant. Why did she support Dean? "Because he opposed the Iraq war," she said. She also liked the fact that Dean was pro-choice and thought he had the right opinion on the gay issue.

I suspect that this helps explain what is going on with the polls. At first, the Dean surge -- his Internet fundraising, his sudden leap to frontrunner status due to his opposition to the war -- attracted a lot of upper-middle class Democrats. The resulting hype translated into support among likely caucus-goers in Iowa. But now that a lot of caucus-goers, especially the union folks, are getting to meet Dean, his support is dropping. An arrogant Northeasterner who talks down to them just doesn't seem to win their support.

Whether Dean's approach will doom his chances to be the Democratic nominee is anybody's guess. Yet there are union-heavy states like South Carolina and Oklahoma just over the primary horizon. If Iowa is any indication, the Dean Campaign may stumble some more in the days ahead.

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David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.