It's always slightly discombobulating when someone you've known for years and always written off as a mediocrity with no talents suddenly leaps to phenomenal success. In my line of work, it's usually some fellow hack whose first novel gets optioned by Miramax for Cameron Diaz. Or the guy I sat next to at a friend's wedding who tried to sell me his shoes, and next time I landed in Britain he'd somehow become the nation's most beloved bisexual gameshow host, Dale Winton.
But right now it's happening on a much larger scale to someone called Howard Dean. If you've never heard of him, don't worry. You'll soon be never hearing of him ever again. But just for the moment he is, improbably, the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. As another famous Dean once sang, 'Everybody loves somebody sometime', and Howard Dean's sometime is now. Go, Deano!
In the quarter ending 30 June, he took in more dough than any of his rivals. All Monday, Fox News was hailing him as 'the Six-Million-Dollar Man', until it emerged in mid-afternoon that he was way up over six mil and heading for seven. And over two million of that was in Internet contributions, a record amount for a new fundraising medium.
So who is Howard Dean? According to whose spin you buy, Howard Dean is either the new John McCain – a scrappy insurgent who's not afraid to speak his mind, etc. – or the new Bill Clinton – the successful Democratic governor of a small state whose winning charm makes voters swoon, etc., etc. Dean's already slipped easily into a standard catchphrase, prefacing any answer to any question on policy – healthcare, gay marriage, genocide in the Congo – with, 'Look, here's how we did it in Vermont.' And nobody titters!
As for the bus-and-truck McCain act, that got a workout the other day when Dean formally launched his campaign in Burlington, Vermont and cast himself as the outsider among a bunch of establishment drones. 'It's a bit of a club down there,' he said. 'All the candidates from Washington, they all know each other, they all move in the same circles, and what I'm doing is breaking into the country club.'
In normal circumstances, this would have been a bit of consultant-scripted boilerplate outsiderism – except that a few days earlier his son Paul and three buddies had been arrested for breaking into Burlington Country Club to steal some beer. Realising his 'gaffe', the governor shrugged to his aide, 'Why do I say these things?'
It struck me as a stage aside, an inauthentic attempt at McCainiac authenticity. But who cares? The new John McCain, the new Bill Clinton, the new Rachel from Friends. None of these incarnations bears much resemblance to the Howard Dean I've been watching on my local news every night for over a decade. On my side of the hill, because of the way the mountains bounce the signals around, I can't receive any New Hampshire TV stations, just Vermont's WCAX Channel 3, so I never get any news on what my own state's governor and legislature are up to – just night after night of non-stop Howard Dean. In 1991, Dean was lieutenant-governor, a part-time position (we don't bother with one on this side of the river), so he was examining a patient in his doctor's surgery when he got the news that Governor Richard Snelling had died and he was now Vermont's chief executive. He got re-elected, and re-re-elected, and re-re-re-elected through the Nineties. And he talked non-stop for most of the decade. The stereotypical Vermonter is a man of few words, but, week in, week out, my neighbour Marselis Parsons, who hosts the Channel 3 news, would interview Governor Dean in exchanges that consisted of a six-word question from Marselis and a 40-minute answer from Howard.
Dean is a not quite telegenic guy: he's got clean-cut looks, but his jaw is squashed back into his neck, like a plastic doll whose owner's tricycle reversed over him. It gives him a vaguely defensive air. Vermonters don't make a big deal of their governors – there is no 'governor's mansion', for example – so Dean made a big deal of himself. When you run into him at, say, the annual World's Fair in Tunbridge or on the last flight back to Vermont from the big cities to the south, he gives off a whiff of thin-skinned arrogance not uncommon in the medical profession. He's chippy with a mean streak. So's John McCain, but he took the precaution of conscripting the entire national media as campaign workers. If I were a Dean consultant, I'd be urging him to do the same, fast.
He didn't do much for Vermont. The eastern part of the state, just over the Connecticut river from me, is a patchwork of broken-down farms whose owners pay some of the highest taxes in the Republic and get very little to show for it, except the sense that they've lost control over their own affairs. But that's not the Vermont that matters. There's another Vermont – the one colonised in the Sixties by ponytailed granola progressivism and summed up by a remarkably prescient 1972 article in Playboy, headlined 'Take Over Vermont': 'Get 225,000 counterculturalists to settle in the Green Mountain State and exercise their franchise –- and you've begun a unique social experiment.' Or more to the point: just because these ideas are a surefire vote-loser everywhere across the country doesn't mean they won't catch on if enough of the tiny minority that believes in them moves to one small underpopulated jurisdiction.
So 30 years on, the unique social experiment is almost complete, and Howard Dean's state is not terribly friendly to any kind of business other than folksy boutique capitalism as represented by the Vermont Teddy Bear Company and Ben & Jerry's, the hippy-dippy ice-cream-makers who sell 'Peace Pops' in flavours like 'Cherry Garcia'. And even these most famous exemplars of the Green Mountain State's caring capitalism flopped out. A couple of years ago, Ben & Jerry's got taken over by Unilever, even though one of them – Ben or possibly Jerry – wasn't too happy about it. But the one who was – Jerry or maybe Ben – insists that UniBen or Jerrylever or whatever it's called now is still just the same bunch of committed activists raging at the greed of multinational globalised capitalism, even though they're now a wholly owned subsidiary thereof.
So, for example, a while back they put out an environmental statement called 'Ben & Jerry's Thoughts on Dioxin': 'The only safe level of dioxin exposure is no exposure at all.' A good way to avoid exposure to dioxin is to steer clear of their ice-cream: some scientific wags tested a pint of Ben & Jerry's vanilla and found it had 0.79 parts per trillion of dioxin, which is just about 200 times greater than the 'virtually safe' daily dose recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency.
In other words, Ben & Jerry's are full of it. And so's Howard Dean. In Ben & Jerry terms, he's a thousand pints of Lite, a masterful Clintonian triangulator who's taken the but-I-didn't-inhale approach to political viability into far more ambitious territory. Although he did part of his medical training at an abortion clinic, he's always claimed he never actually performed one himself: he may have dilated, but he never extracted. Hardcore Vermont liberals – especially the environmentalists – got sick of Dean's slipperiness long before he decided to run for president.
But out of state the activists don't know that, and in a field split between five lacklustre Congressional compromisers (Senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards, Bob Graham and former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt) and three fringe wackos (the professional racebaiter Al Sharpton, dimbulb peacenik Dennis Kucinich and Carol Moseley-Braun, whose campaign launch in Iowa attracted an audience of one), Dean's done a superb job at positioning himself as the heart of the party. As he put it in his craftiest soundbite to date, he's there to represent 'the Democratic wing of the Democratic party'. These are the people who are fed up being told by the slick consultants that they need to make themselves more indistinguishable from the Republicans, and then they wind up losing anyway, as they did in 2000 and 2002. At least when Bill Clinton sold out the Left on welfare and governed as an Eisenhower Republican, he was getting some terrific oral sex in return. The rest of the party feels it's got nothing to show for pretending to be 'centrist', and the Howardly Lion is their hero.
On NBC's Meet the Press a couple of Sundays back, the would-be Commander-in-Chief and fierce opponent of the Iraq war was asked about the present strength of the US armed forces, and was unable to answer to the nearest million, sniffing tetchily that, when he was president, he'd have advisers who'd tell him stuff like that. The wise old Washington birds tutted that Dean wasn't ready for prime time, but, from my straw poll of Democratic nutters, I'd say the party's primary voters couldn't care less. Not knowing how many soldiers America has is a plus in their eyes. To these guys, a lone GI would be one soldier too many.
But on the issues this crowd cares about, Dean is an expert. The reason he's piling up all the big money from out of state boils down to two words: civil unions. Three years ago, Vermont became the first state in the nation to recognise a form of legal union for same-sex couples, and that puts Dean on the cutting edge of the issue du jour. Canada recently announced it would change its marriage laws to permit gays and lesbians to wed, Massachusetts is expected to go the same way later this summer, and the US Supreme Court just struck down the various state sodomy laws. Dean now says bringing civil unions to Vermont was 'the most important event in my political life'. At the time, he was going round the state telling folks he was only doing it because the Vermont Supreme Court made him, and, instead of the usual showboating public ceremony, he signed the legislation behind closed doors. But out in Hollywood all Barbra Streisand and the other high rollers know is that, if gay marriage is your big priority rather than Iraq and national security and all the other peripheral junk, then Dean's your man. In a way, he's the first gay candidate, the first beneficiary of a prominent, organisationally effective, big-money gay bloc in the Democratic party. This year, gay is the new black.
In fact, though it wasn't designed with him in mind, Dean could have been custom-built for this election's highly compressed primary season. Gay marriage is the perfect issue for long-distance pre-primary fundraising, where he's managed to do serious and possibly fatal damage to Senators Lieberman and Graham. His general leftishness will play well with voters in the Iowa caucuses on 19 January, where he figures he can scupper Dick Gephardt. His Vermontiness will appeal more to New Hampshire Democrats on 28 January than will John Kerry's Massachusetts hauteur. By the time of the big cluster of Sun Belt primaries of 3 February, Dean reckons he can use his record on gun control (Vermont has none) to ditch the north-east liberal baggage and sell himself to southern white males, seeing off his last opponent, North Carolina's John Edwards.
I'd say the south will be a bridge too far for Dean and the Vermontification of the Democratic party. In electoral terms, Vermont is a polarising state. It's the Hillary Rodham Clinton of states. It's not like Kentucky or New Mexico or a gazillion others you've no particular view on. To most people in Bush-voting states, Vermont is a province of Canada and, unlike the kinky maple fetishist Paul Robinson and his commissioning editors at The Spectator, they don't mean that in a good way.
But, even if he doesn't get the nomination, in this critical pre-primary summer as the candidates are trying to define and position themselves, he's pulling the party well to the left of where it wants to be. Senators with credibility on war and national security (Lieberman, Graham up to a point) are dead in the water. Equivocators like Kerry are twisting themselves into pretzels as they try to wiggle out from semi-hawkish pronouncements of the past and scramble to join Dean on the pastures of moral purity.
As for the man with the plain-spoken candour of John McCain and the electability of Bill Clinton, before it's over it'll be looking more like the electability of John McCain and the plain-spoken candour of Bill Clinton. Howard Dean hasn't just broken into the country club; he's stolen the boss's car and he's taking it for a joy-ride.