Oct 1 2003

The Dean Surge

Fear and Loathing in Campaign Punditry

Jacqueline Bacon’s cover story in the last issue of Extra! (9-10/03) documented how prominent news outlets feel a compulsion, from the beginning of a presidential race, to select a handful of candidates as potential winners and dismiss the others as also-rans. One sign of the absurdity of this process is that between the early campaign coverage that Bacon analyzed and our time the magazine arrived in people’s mailboxes, one of those supposed also-rans–Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont–had become “the unofficial front-runner,” according to no less an authority than the New York Times (8/5/03).

Dean’s surge gathered a great deal of attention in the media, as pundits rushed to rewrite the campaign’s script. But the excitement was colored by a clear sense of foreboding from the press: “Howard Dean: Destiny or Disaster? Inside the Democrats’ Dilemma” was Newsweek‘s headline (8/11/03)–and the question was pretty much answered inside the article: “The dilemma for Democrats tempted by Dean is whether to go with their hearts or their heads.”

“Why Are Democrats afraid of Dean?” asked a U.S. News & World Report subhead (8/11/03)–an odd question to ask in a story about Dean’s rising popularity with Democrats. But the subset of Democrats who were frightened was specified in an ABC News report (6/23/03) that concluded, after noting Dean’s polling strength in Iowa and New Hampshire, “Some in the party establishment worry [that] if Dean wins these key early states, he and those in the ‘Dean Machine’ will have fatally weakened the party.”

The danger these establishment Democrats saw was, as always, that the party would move to the left. The New York Times was particularly vocal about this fear, giving front-page space to a story like “Centrist Democrats Warn Party Not to Present Itself as ‘Far Left'” (7/29/03)–essentially an unpaid advertisement for the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council. A month later (New York Times, 8/31/03), “worried Democrats” were still fretting that “a complicated nominating fight…was pulling their party to the left.”

The main focus of these fears was Dean and his “very liberal campaign” (NBC, 6/22/03), since his “anti-war rhetoric and liberal stance are clearly to the left of his Democratic rivals” (Reuters, 8/24/03). (This same odd-man-out framing–which pointedly ignores several media-disfavored candidates who are quite openly running to Dean’s left–was used by an August 22 Washington Post article to paint Richard Gephardt as an extremist, asserting that he “is calling for a bigger and more activist federal government, one markedly different from the one envisioned by President Bush and by the other contenders for the Democratic nomination.”)

Dean does not himself claim to be on the left: “I think it’s pathetic that I’m considered the left-wing liberal,” he told the Washington Post (7/6/03); “It shows just how far to the right this country has lurched.” Occasional articles in prominent publications pointed out that Dean’s record in Vermont was not markedly liberal: See the Washington Post‘s “Dean a Tax-and-Spend Liberal? Hardly; Candidate Stressed Fiscal Discipline in Vermont” (8/3/03) or the New York Times‘ “Defying Labels Left or Right, Dean’s ’04 Run Is Making Gains” (7/30/03). Newsweek‘s “Destiny or Disaster?” piece, like some other accounts, acknowledged that the far-left Dean was a caricature–but persisted in using that caricature to frame the piece.

If it’s not the candidate who’s too far to the left, though, perhaps it’s his supporters. The New York Times (8/27/03) covered a Dean rally using the same tired stereotypes that are trotted out for any sort of progressive protest: The crowd, according to reporter Jodi Wilogren, was “mostly aging flower children and the tongue-studded next generation.” Later, the article claimed that “the feisty crowds were filled with Birkenstock liberals whose loudest ovations always followed Dr. Dean’s anti-war riff–there were few union members, African-Americans or immigrants.” One might wonder how the reporter gauged the immigration status and union membership of the crowd–and even more so why she implies that members of these groups would not welcome an anti-war message. (See Labor Educator, 2/28/03; AP, 2/24/03; and NCM, 5/5/03, for some actual discussions of these sectors’ attitudes toward the war.)

Despite the complaint of the New York Times‘ Adam Nagourney (8/31/03) that the presidential race was still “unsettled” 15 months before Election Day, there is no need for the media to artificially hurry the process by picking a winner or predicting disaster. The job of journalists at this point is to give thorough and accurate coverage to all the candidates in the race. That way, when they go into the voting booths during the primaries, Democrats can decide for themselves who they’re afraid of.

Research Assistance: Ben Somberg