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How the Hulk exploded in Iowa

Mark Steyn watches Howard Dean go ape and John Edwards emerge as a viable contender

24 January 2004

12:00 AM

24 January 2004

12:00 AM

New Hampshire

A little over a month ago, in the Wall Street Journal, I wrote that Governor Howard Dean looked ‘like Bruce Banner just before he turns into the Incredible Hulk, as if his head’s about to explode out of his shirt collar’. On Monday night, Dean, a front-runner in the polls only a week ago, placed a very poor third in the Iowa caucuses — the first time, since he began his political career running for the state legislature in 1982, that the Vermonter has lost an election. He didn’t take it well. He came out on stage, took his jacket off and handed it to Tom Harkin, the wily Democratic senator who fancies himself as Iowa’s kingmaker and had made the mistake of jumping on the Dean bandwagon just as the wheels began to fall off. Howlin’ Howard rolled up his sleeves, and you vaguely noticed from the popping veins on his forehead and so forth that he seemed a little further along in the old Hulk transformation than usual. As the Hulk says, ‘You don’t want to make me angry’ — and Dean had plenty of reason to be angry. He started loud and got louder, and after a minute his face was twisted and contorted and he was yelling at the top of his lungs:

‘WE WILL NOT GIVE UP IN NEW HAMPSHIRE! WE WILL NOT GIVE UP IN SOUTH DAKOTA!! WE WILL NOT GIVE UP IN ARIZONA!!! WE WILL NOT GIVE UP IN…’ South Dakota, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Michigan…. You name it, he’s not giving up there. He pretty much listed all 49 remaining states, and may well have gone on to Puerto Rico and Guam. My TV was beginning to smoke by then. ‘WE WILL NOT QUIT NOW OR EVER!!!!’ he screamed.

Er, actually, that’s not true. If he doesn’t win in New Hampshire this Tuesday, he’s over, and he might as well cut his losses rather than going on to South Dakota, Guam or anywhere else.

But on he roared, jabbing his fingers and screwing up his face: ‘AND THEN WE’RE GOING TO WASHINGTON, DC!!!!! TO TAKE BACK THE WHITE HOUSE!!!!!!’ And then he made a monster-type noise — ‘EEEAAARRGHRRR!!!!!!!’ — such as the Hulk makes when he picks up a tank, rips off its turret, and tosses what’s left over a distant mountain range. But the berserker howl was pitched somewhere in Charlotte Church’s upper register and it was hard not to notice that he hadn’t exploded into a big green monster. If anything, he seemed to be shrinking. It turns out he’s not the Hulk so much as a barmier version of Neil Kinnock at that Sheffield rally on the eve of the 1992 election, albeit with a different script: this we-will-never-give-up stuff sounded less like Churchill fighting them on the beaches and more like Frank Bough’s wife, after dear old Frank’s recurring bondage-dungeon problem, telling the Daily Mail that ‘we will not be beaten’.

Of course, as an advertisement for American democracy, the Iowa caucuses are a lot of hooey. There’s no secret ballot, you go to the school gym or your neighbour’s living-room and stand in the corner allocated to your candidate, and if there are less than 15 per cent of the room’s population standing in your candidate’s corner it doesn’t count and you have to go to some other guy’s corner, and then the number of delegates your precinct has been allocated based on the last county results for gubernatorial and presidential elections is divided pretty roughly among the groups with over 15 per cent, and then…


That’s one thing Howard Dean got right. Four years ago, the governor, doing a little weekend punditry on a widely unwatched TV show in Montreal, trashed the Iowa caucuses as a boondoggle for extremist interests that stiffs the average voter.

What he got wrong was his reaction to the belated unearthing of this trenchant analysis. Confronted by this ancient video performance, Dean explained that he’d now seen the light on what a marvellous contribution the Iowa caucuses make to American democracy, which didn’t exactly do much for his reputation as a tell-it-like-it-is, refreshingly candid, cut-the-bull, plain-spoken truth-teller. If he’d stuck to his original position, he’d at least have had a good reason for losing. Even though, as it happens, the bigger turn-out made the Iowa caucuses less extremist than usual. That’s not because Dean drew a lot of Bush loathers to the polls, but because John Kerry and John Edwards drew a lot of Dean loathers to the polls.

Dean’s other big mistake was his media relations. Unlike John McCain, he didn’t flatter the press. Indeed, his parting shot in Iowa was to tell them to ‘get a life’. Senator Harkin said Dean could take a few knocks because he’s ‘a fire hydrant’. And, like a fire hydrant, he’s getting pissed on by every mangy old pooch who passes by. It’s not just that Humpty Howard fell off the wall, but that nobody in the media likes him enough to help put him together again.

I said in the Sunday Telegraph last week that I thought Dean could lose in Iowa but still win in the Granite State, where most of my Democratic neighbours are supporting him because they think of him as the dull centrist Vermont governor from across the Connecticut river, not the foaming anti-war madman he’s been playing these past 12 months. But I dunno. That TV rant on Monday night was by far the worst of the big four speeches of the evening. It was, first of all, graceless, at least compared with the rueful boilerplate of the other big loser, Dick Gephardt (‘The sun goes up, the sun goes down, time marches on’). But, beyond that, it was just freaky off-the-metre insane. Dean wasn’t defeated by Kerry; he defeated himself.

Take my neighbour Bill, a big supporter of the governor: he’s an elderly, dignified man, sings in the choir, always shows up to Town Meeting and School Board, and he spends most of the week calling up registered Democrats, like my assistant (we’re an equal-opportunity employer here), and trying to persuade them of the merits of Dean. If he saw that speech, he’ll be horrified. More to the point, even if he didn’t see it, he’ll be having to come up with some way of reassuring Dems who did and can’t believe their boring Vermont neighbour has turned into a psycho. The governor forgot he was on TV; he was playing to the young college kids in the hall, the ‘Deaniacs’ that he’d energised on the Internet and whose ‘intense’ ‘passion’ would, according to Dick Morris, drive them to the polls, transforming American politics for ever. Well, they didn’t show up. Maybe they misunderstood and thought they could email their votes in, or leave them in the Comments section on Dean’s blog. Or maybe, like me when I’m trawling for kinky cyber-sex, they just said they’re 19 and mega-hip and they’re really 57 and 400 lbs.

Either way, if Dean survives New Hampshire, 80-year-olds will have proved more decisive than 18-year-olds; hip is less important than hip-replacement. That being the case, if you’re my friend Bill, this isn’t a good week to be canvassing for Mister Angry. The question between now and Tuesday is whether Dean can slow the erosion of his support here to a rate that lets him still squeak out a narrow win. If he can’t win in the Granite State, he has no rationale in South Carolina the following week. The rap against Dean has always been that he can’t win. In Iowa, he couldn’t. He can’t afford to make that a pattern.

The other big loser on Monday night was Wesley Clark. General Clark sat out Iowa to concentrate on New Hampshire, and by last week had successfully positioned himself as the unDean, the viable alternative to Howlin’ Howard. After Iowa, the proven unDeans are Senators J
ohn Kerry and John Edwards: against Dean’s 18 per cent, Kerry got 38 per cent and Edwards 32 per cent. More important than the numbers is that Clark is less the unDean than Dean Version 2.0. He’s certainly kookier than Dean, and, if any coherent message comes out of the caucuses, it’s that not all Democrats are ready to drive over the cliff on the Bush-haters’ bus. Two weeks ago, I mocked the way Kerry and Edwards had twisted themselves into pretzels over Iraq. But it seems that, given a choice between Bush and Bush-hatred, many Democrats are looking for something a little more nuanced, if only because nuanced incoherence is more politically viable than going for the Michael Moore vote. Clark chose to crawl way out on a limb after Dean. In Iowa, that branch got sawn off. From a European point of view, the BBC and the Guardian can fantasise about Bush losing to a fully paid-up Chomsky/Moore conspirazoid, but the Dems seem to have decided to give Planet Earth one last try. I wouldn’t be surprised if Clark came in fourth.

So who does that leave? John Kerry won Iowa and will get a bounce going into New Hampshire. But, even in his moment of triumph, the Massachusetts senator seemed tired — not just in the sore-throat up-all-night sense, but intellectually. His Iowa victory speech was way too long, especially when you consider it was basically his New Hampshire stump speech with the heartwarming human-interest stories from the Granite State replaced by heart-warming human-interest stories from the Hawkeye State. But the themes are stale — the ‘special interests’, Halliburton, Enron. It’s the genteel, house-trained. Massachusetts-patrician version of Dean dead-endism. And his big line of the night — that he was now the ‘Comeback Kerry’ — amply testifies to the sparkling quality of his rhetoric. He is, in fact, the Ketchup Kid, the wife of Big Ketchup heiress Theresa Heinz, and the question now is whether he can ketchup to Dean by Tuesday, and whether his cash-strapped campaign (he’s just mortgaged his home) gets rewarded for the way he left the Governor lying in a pool of the red stuff. Kerry’s campaign has got better (it could hardly have got worse), but Kerry hasn’t.

So I’d say the big winner from Iowa was the number two guy: John Edwards, the pretty-boy trial lawyer from North Carolina. He made by far the best speech and he’s a poor boy who pulled himself up from hardscrabble roots. Self-made is an easier sell than John Kerry and his Swiss finishing school. He’s from the south, which makes him more appealing than Kerry in electoral-college terms, and he’s likeable, which neutralises one of George W. Bush’s biggest advantages. Right about now, the mainstream media will be figuring that out and deciding he’s their new dreamboat, now that Dean’s gone bananas and Clark’s kinda weird.

Looking back on the last few months before this first vote, I was right about the weakness of Dean, the weakness of Clark, and the weakness (long-term) of Kerry. But I never gave much of a thought to Edwards, and it never occurred to me that 70 per cent of Iowa voters would reject both Gephardtian old-school union pandering and Deaniac state-of-the-art Bush-hating in favour of Kerry and Edwards. So what next? The famously cranky Granite State electorate dislikes anybody else — least of all Iowa — dictating their script: in 1996, when Bob Dole was inevitable, they went for Pat Buchanan; in 2000, when Bush was unstoppable, they went for McCain. So the question for my fellow New Hampshirites is to figure out what the conventional wisdom is and then vote against it. Dean’s dead? Hey, let’s vote him back to life! Kerry’s surging? Let’s send the creepy ma


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