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Howard Dean: What Really Went Wrong?

Basil Enwegbara

I have followed American politics since I was a teenager. And since the Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan race, I have always predicted the winners of the presidency. Even when Bill Clinton was confronted with sex scandals past and present, I still predicted that he looked presidential and seemed appealing with his message. The same happened with the Al Gore-George Bush race; I got it right.

When I saw Howard Dean a year ago, I saw a man with all the qualities that I was looking for in a presidential candidate, even though he sometimes seemed too angry to make it to the White House. I knew that John Kerry was more experienced and also has a presidential outlook, but Dean seemed full of energy and enthusiasm.

So the questions are: Am I wrong this time? What really went wrong with Dean’s momentum? Can Dean recover and beat Kerry, who now seems unstoppable?

There is a saying that what is gotten easily, goes away easily. Dean became the frontrunner with less effort than others. As a result, he quickly saw his success as a given, and believed the deal was already completed with the American electorate. He even began to think about his vice presidential candidate.

Without any careful thinking of the consequences, he began to attack the so-called Washington politicians, describing them as insider folks who have never done well and have spent so much time in the nation’s capital that they have little new to offer. Combining this criticism with his electrifying antiwar rhetoric, Dean was able to draw a large crowd, particularly among youth and those who over the years lost interest in politics.

With everything going well for him, Dean pushed his luck, trying to embrace those Southerners who fly Confederate flags in their pickup trucks. As if he had not made enough of a political blunder, Dean accused the national chair of his party of not doing enough to stop what he called unnecessary attacks on him by his opponents.

But the straw that broke the camel’s back was an unfortunate episode in the days before the Iowa caucuses, as Dean angrily shouted down on someone trying to ask him some embarrassing questions. Most people, including myself, were outraged that the man who wanted to become president could not control his temper. People began to doubt if he had all it takes to compete with President Bush and to become America’s president.

Complicating the already sorry situation was the discovery that four year ago, Dean accused the Iowa caucuses of being a bunch of special interest groups who have hijacked the process. His unplanned meetings with President Carter and the embarrassment of trying to steal a political moment presented by the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday seemed to send the message of arrogance to a lot of people.

And the results are reflected in what his campaign has become in such a short period of time. Senator Kerry did not hesitate to seize every opportunity Dean’s blunders presented. Not only did the Massachusetts politician build a strong base that did not alienate his fellow Washington insiders. He ensured that he presented himself as more reliable on dealing with uncertainties than Dean, something he proved earlier by mortgaging his own house in Boston when his campaign was stifled by a lack of funding.

One thing is certain; it will take a miracle for Dean to turn events around in his favor, especially since time is not on his side, and Senator Kerry has growing momentum as the most electable candidate to beat President Bush by polls. The only good news -- if it ever comes -- will be Kerry coming to recognize that the crowd Dean commanded is still loyal to him and may not go out to vote should Dean be disgraced out of the race. Senator Kerry must come to appreciate that in order to win the November elections, he has to bring everyone on board. And if that means making Dean his running mate, let it be so. It is politically obvious that Kerry, as a senator, must not choose a fellow senator as his running mate. The most appropriate choice would be a governor, like Dean, who has been a chief executive officer of a state with good records.

Kerry must search for the best way to reconcile with Dean and his followers. I am not claiming that if Kerry does all of the above, he will definitely beat President Bush. Nor am I saying that if he does not do them he will not win. As far as the battle with Bush is concerned, it is a huge strategic game of its own.