Back in June, when Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean allegedly flubbed a couple of foreign policy questions during a grilling from Tim Russert on Meet the Press, the Washington press corps quickly pounced on the former Vermont governor, asserting that he was not ready for prime time.
But as Ruth Conniff reports in The Progressive (Sept. 2003), the problem has less to do with Dean’s ability to marshal the facts than with the ‘insider’ game that dominates the media’s political coverage. “What most stands out about Dean to Washington insiders is that he’s not an insider himself,” she writes. Dean has been able to sidestep most of these attacks–plus jabs from certain progressives who doubt his liberal credentials–while running strong in the strategically crucial states of Iowa and New Hampshire, according to recent polls. Somehow, writes Katha Pollitt in The Nation (Sept. 1, 2003), Dean has been able to capture the imagination of progressive voters despite his centrist political background. Part of this, she says, is due to the desperate need for regime change in Washington and part of it has to do with Dean’s campaign style. “They’ve gone for Dean because, alone among the major Democratic contenders, he has taken Bush on in an aggressive and forthright way, because he’s calling the craven Democratic Party to account, and because they think he can win,” Pollitt writes.
But Peter Hart of the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting says Dean could make his life a lot easier in the months ahead if he moved aggressively to repair his often testy relationship with reporters. “He doesn’t seem to like journalists, and the feeling is mutual,” Hart says.
Of course, up to now Dean has done pretty well without the help of the establishment press by using an old strategy perfected by Ronald Reagan: speaking directly to the people. He’s pulled ahead of the rest of the pack thanks to the excitement generated by his groundbreaking use of the Internet to reach voters as well as a talent for old-fashioned campaigning. Dean is not afraid of stirring emotions at public appearances, a trait exhibited 12 years ago by another hopeful governor from a small state–Bill Clinton. His strong appeal to average voters will become even more important after next winter’s Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, when it’s likely that he will pay more attention to centrist voters in Southern and larger states. But if that happens, his most damning critics may no longer be the conservative Washington media but all those liberals he’s been courting from the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”