dean in seattle

dean02.jpgLast evening I went to see the Howard Dean rally outside Westlake Center in downtown Seattle. (Via Dean’s site you can see pictures and read other reports about it.)

Dean was visibly awed by the size of the crowd (12-15,000, a new record for him) and a little nervous. I arrived about 6:15 (he was set to go on at 7) and already the entire square was packed shoulder to shoulder. I fought my way over to stage right and got a good view of the enormous and enthusiastic crowd. It was pretty striking.

Unfortunately, when I arrived there was some kind of half-ass hippie choir on stage, being led by a guy that looked like Yanni on Prozac. They were singing painfully earnest, didactic folks songs… and even finished with “This Land Is Your Land”! In my political opinion, Deans’ central task right now is escaping the image the conservative media is trying to saddle him with: pacifist, throwback far-leftie. Starting your rally with a Mighty Wind-style 60s-reject self-parodic hippie folk choir is not a savvy move.

I gotta say, having been to some Nader rallies in 2000 (I know, I know): that crowd–the Berkenstock-Latte unearned-idealism Seattle fuzzy-headed liberal crowd–was much in evidence. However, they did not dominate–the crowd was, all told, extremely diverse, both age and gender wise (of course, not particularly ethnically diverse, but that’s Seattle for you).

The introductory speakers were unexciting and long-winded, as you would expect. Dean, however, was greeted with a roar, like a damn rock star. There is genuine passion for this guy, that much cannot be argued.

Message

Dean’s got some canny speech writers. I was pleased at the way he finessed some issues that are dangerous territory. The Dems desperately need to reframe several common debates in this country; they’ve allowed the right to define the terms and the possibilities.

One of the first that struck me was a basic introductory theme: Republicans don’t know how to handle money. Thanks to decades of unremitting propaganda (and, yes, plenty of fiscal mismanagement), “Democrat” is practically synonymous with “tax & spend.” But the gross financial mismanagement of the current administration (and the fiscal responsibility of the previous one) give Dems a real chance of winning back the Good With Your Money mantle. (Dean’s economic positions here.)

It would sink Dean at the point if he backed away from his opposition to the Iraq war, but he needs some very good lines to use when challenged on that score. It’s going to be his Achilles heel if he makes it to the general. The note he’s hitting now is the best one available. First, he makes clear that he supported the first Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan. Then he hits Bush’s honesty issue: “If I am commander and chief and I send your brothers and sons into danger, I will tell you the real reasons for it.” (More Dean foreign policy here.)

He was strong–and most passionate–on health care. There wasn’t much specific (it is a rally after all) but he has a nice one-two punch here as well. First he notes that everyone is insured in Vermont; then he ends a strong line with a list of the countries that offer full health coverage to all citizens–the cheers were rising and rising as the list went on, culminating in “even Costa Rica has everyone covered!” Of course he’ll have to dial back the stronger stuff in the general, but for pumping up his base, this was just the ticket. (Dean on health care here.)

There was also a line about early intervetion programs like Head Start that hit the nail on the head. He cited the two million Americans in jail and said that “prison is our biggest, most expensive, and least effective social intervention. We know which kids are at risk by first grade. Why can’t we help them?” (Dean on education here.)

In general, Dean is doing a good job of retaining the plain-spoken demeanor and obvious outrage that endeared him to lefties, while sounding themes that move him towards the center.

A final note: I wish Seattle lefties would get a bit of a strategic clue. They seem to unselfconsciously play to the very worst stereotypes that the general public has about them. It really struck me when Dean attacked the Patriot Act, and ended his line by saying, “and all in the name of national security!” A chorus of boo’s rose from the crowd. I was thinking, “how would this look on television? The phrase ‘national security’ followed by a crowd full of Dean supporters booing? That’s great.” The Dems need credibility on foreign policy and national security, badly, and it would help if the average lefty on the street got the memo. Like I said, Dean himself seems pretty savvy about tacking to the middle, shedding the “insurgent lefty” label… but his supporters don’t seem that hip to the game. At least not in Seattle.