Every night when I turn on the TV, I see a presidential candidate. He’s the former governor of a small New England state and loved by the people (he’s won every time he’s been on the ballot). He’s very smart and a brilliant speaker. And he’s an underdog who tells the truth. He’s a moderate democrat, with a common-sense approach to foreign policy. And his speeches lift you up and give you something you believe in. His campaign manager is a frazzled balding political operative, a veteran of dozens of failed campaigns who finally managed to strike gold.

I could be talking about Josiah Bartlet, the president in the world of The West Wing, but I’m not. I’m talking about Howard Dean.

I don’t know whether Dean watches the show, or if Sorkin is advising his campaign, but he’s following it by the book. For Bartlet, the turning point comes in Nashua, New Hampshire when a farmer asks him why he voted against the New England Dairy Farming Compact:

BARTLET: [pause] (concedingly) Yeah, I screwed you on that one.
MAN: I’m sorry?
BARTLET: I screwed you. You got hosed.
BARTLET: I voted against the bill ‘cause I didn’t want it to be hard for people to buy milk. I stopped some money from flowing into your pocket. If that angers you, if you resent me, I completely respect that, but if you expect anything different from the President of the United States, I suggest you vote for somebody else. Thanks very much. Hope you enjoyed the chicken.

The audience applauds.

A similar turning point came for me when I was watching Howard Dean being interviewed by Chris Matthews (about a quarter of the way through; Matthews is a much better interviewer than I though). Matthews is hammering away at him about his draft record. Dean explains that he had a back problem, and that it would have been wrong for him to conceal it.

MATTHEWS: When you went into the draft board that day, were you hoping to get deferred?
DEAN: I was not looking forward to going to Vietnam—
MATTHEWS: Were you hoping to get deferred?
DEAN: [pause] (concedingly) Yes.

It looks like a moment of defeat. But then Matthews says “We got an honest man in front of us here” and the crowd goes wild. Dean’s got a big smile and you can’t help but smile with him. He came out and told you the truth.

Bartlet is supposed to be the man everybody wants for President, the real human being. Leo explains why he’s pushing Bartlet:

LEO: Because I’m tired of it year after year after year after year having to chose between the lesser of who cares? Of trying to get myself excited about a candidate who can speak in complete sentences. Of setting the bar so low, I can hardly look at it. They say a good man can’t get elected President. I don’t believe that, do you?

After watching him for a few days, I think Dean is the real deal. And his campaign manager, Joe Trippi, is doing everything right. Dean’s raising money from the grassroots, not the Democratic party elites. He’s got a comprehensive campaign finance reform plan. He has very moderate positions of everything else. He says what he means. He wants to overhaul the whole party (in his ads he says “I want to take our country, and our party, back”) and Trippi has suggested that we’ll see similar Dean-like Congressional candidates popping up all over the country. When you listen to Dean and Trippi you don’t hear prepared overblown remarks; they just answer the question honestly, simply, and plainly.

When Bartlet runs for reelection against George W. Bush (they call him Florida Governor Robert Richie) he’s decides to fight Bush’s I’m-just-a-simple-guy shtick by making the campaign about “mart and stupid, about engaged and not, qualified and not”. (Sorkin has said this was his way of rerunning the Gore-Bush campaign, and doing it right.) I’m not sure this will work for Dean, but it’ll be interesting to see if he does it.

Personally, if I had a moment with Joe Trippi I’d say this: You don’t need any advice on the primaries since unless a new candidate emerges you’ve got them sewn up. But when you get to the fight with Bush, you’ve got to make yourself the people’s candidate. I get money from average people, Bush gets it from special interests. I want to balance the budget so you get a job and money, Bush wants both overseas. I want to improve the environment so you’re healthy, Bush wants to sell it to big contributors. I’m the honest guy who believes in you, Bush is the puppet who’s misleading you.

That’s just my advice, but if Trippi’s anything to go by, this is going to be one of the most interesting campaigns yet.

posted December 15, 2003 05:11 PM (Politics) #


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Aaron Swartz (me@aaronsw.com)