The doctor is in - across the country and at AU. Over the summer, Time and Newsweek magazines plastered former Vermont governor Howard Dean's mug on their front covers. Posters recruiting students to participate in Dean's campaign appear across campus. Dean has skyrocketed in most national polls, and now leads in the key Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. His blunt criticism of President Bush resonates particularly among young, liberal college students. At AU, 45 students have already signed up for his campaign. On a campus where merely the mention of Bush's name often generates sneers, it's no surprise Dean's no-holds-barred bashing of the president has garnered him campus support.
While fiery rhetoric may have launched Dean as the top contender for the Democratic nomination, his constant criticism of the president and lack of a positive message will hamper his candidacy in the long term. When Dean appeared on "Meet the Press" in June, most pundits rightly criticized his lack of policy knowledge-and some thought it would foreshadow his political demise. Indeed, Dean's "straight talk" is one of the primary reasons many students support him. Yet while his hard-core supporters may ignore his policy vagueness, it is his lack of clarity on the issues that may ultimately cause his campaign's demise.
Just this past week, Dean flip-flopped on several crucial issues. He told a New Mexico audience that he would act as a more even-handed mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if elected president. "It's not our place to take sides," Dean said. Once his comments were publicized, Joe Lieberman and 30 Democratic House members chastised the governor for proposing a reversal of the strong American-Israeli relationship over the past 50 years. To make matters worse, he referred to members of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas as "soldiers" during a CNN interview a few days later. Intentional or not, these verbal miscues cannot help him with the Jewish vote-a key Democratic constituency.
Dean routinely dishes out criticism of Bush's handling of post-war Iraq, but the former governor lacks a realistic plan of his own. At the New Mexico debate earlier this month, Dean advocated withdrawing troops from Iraq, but at last Tuesday's debate he said "we can't" pull troops out entirely. And in June, he said "we need more troops in Iraq now." Dean gained prominence by vocally opposing the war while many of his rivals waffled over the issue in Congress. Yet his post-war policy proposals are as inarticulate as his vehemence against the war.
These are not the only decisions Dean has waffled on. He opposed the economic embargo against Cuba, now he agrees with the Bush administration. He once opposed the death penalty, now he supports it in certain circumstances. He switched positions on international trade standards. He proposed increasing the Social Security eligibility age-a bold idea, for sure-and now backs away from it like a prototypical politician. Politicians routinely tailor their messages and pander to specific audiences-this is nothing novel. But Dean is running as the anti-politician. It's part of his allure, and his recent lack of candor is bound to hurt him in the upcoming months as the primaries approach. If Dean keeps on asserting that he is "the only white politician that ever talks about race in front of white audiences," as he did during last Tuesday's debate, the press is bound to portray him as a serial exaggerator.
If Dean does win his party's nomination, he will still have one more obstacle to overcome in the general election: his lack of support among blacks, Hispanics and union members-all key Democratic constituencies. A mere 0.5 percent of Vermonters are African-American, and fewer than 1 percent are Hispanic. There are more Ben and Jerry's employees in Vermont than union members. As governor of one of the most homogenous states, he's going to have a hard time rallying the minority base that is crucial to the Democratic party. And his affluent background-he's the son of a Manhattan investment banker-cannot help him among key swing working-class voters in the general election. If President Clinton drew empathy as the candidate from Hope, Dean will be lampooned as the candidate from the Hamptons.
College-age Dean supporters on campus are calling themselves "Generation Dean." Young supporters of the former Vermont governor are already emailing each other Howard Dean buddy icons. AU sophomore and Generation Dean member Mike Whitney supports the former Vermont governor because he's "never believed in a candidate before." Hopefully, Whitney won't be growing cynical any time soon. But other Dean fans who crave populist, straight-talking leaders may be disappointed that their anointed candidate is not a generational icon but simply a wealthy, pragmatic politician.
Josh Kraushaar is a senior in the School of Public Affairs.