TOPICS > Politics

The Rise and Fall

February 18, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: The Associated Press called the rise and fall of the Howard Dean campaign, the equivalent of a political supernova — that’s a bright explosion that suddenly fades.

We’re joined now by three reporters who’ve been covering that phenomenon. Matea Gold of the ” Los Angeles times,” Dan Balz of the “Washington Post,” and Karen Tumulty of “Time” Magazine.

Matea I want to start with you because I know you’ve been out on the road with the candidate Dean at least since last November. I wonder if you have any sense from listening to what he had to say today when finally the last hammer fell — what he thinks, what the folks in the campaign internally think happened.

MATEA GOLD: Well, you know it’s really been an extraordinary rise and fall for Howard Dean. And I think for him today, there’s both bitter irony and a comfort in the fact that he more than anyone defined the story line of this presidential campaign so far.

Yet ultimately Democrats decided he wasn’t the right person to carry the banner and really charge at Bush in the fall. I think that his advisors and Dean to a certain extent recognized that they had a lot of internal slip-ups and mistakes. But he also feels very strongly that he wouldn’t have run this campaign any differently, that he was out there telling the truth. That’s something we heard him say a lot over the last two weeks.

GWEN IFILL: We also heard him say today that basically not that he was quitting but that the campaign would continue in a small “c”, different form. What is this post-campaign campaign supposed to look like?

MATEA GOLD: Well, you know, no one really knows yet. His aides say they’re still trying to sort that out — that Governor Dean himself is going to spend some time thinking about it. He has mentioned that he definitely wants to create an organization focused at defeating President Bush. This was really his signature issue.

People rallied around him starting back last summer and fall because he was the first really to take on Bush. Other advisors say they perhaps might expand to something that is devoted to electing more Democrats to Congress and even helping local politicians — their grassroots supporters get elected.

GWEN IFILL: Dan Balz, we’ve heard Howard Dean did so well as you saw in Kwame’s piece. He was on the cover of the news magazines. He was going great guns right until the voters got involved and he didn’t have any success after that. So let’s go back to Iowa . What actually happened in Iowa to precipitate the slide?

DAN BALZ: Well, I think it actually began to happen before Iowa , Gwen. Howard Dean really in a funny way may have peaked when he got the endorsement of former Vice President Gore in December because at that point it focused every bit of attention on him as the frontrunner. I think at that moment he was unprepared for what came at him. He did not handle it particularly well.

So a slide probably began at that point. I think that once you got into January, he was not able to recover from that. Then I think they made another mistake which was they were under pressure in some ways to be looking ahead to a campaign against President Bush, and I think they forgot that they had to close out the nomination fight.

What we learned– and I think all of us made this mistake– was that we learned again that most voters, even in Iowa , having seen the candidates for the better part of a year or a year-and-a-half begin to focus seriously on the race at the turn of the new year — that happened in Iowa . And at that point Howard Dean was not at his best.

GWEN IFILL: Howard Dean also had a couple of other stumbles along the way, Karen — the insider endorsements. He won a lot of labor support as well as Al Gore support. That didn’t catch the way he had hoped. He also encountered some questions. Walk through a couple of them for me. What were the key points where he kind of stumbled?

KAREN TUMULTY: Well, the biggest questions were about his temperament. As Dan suggested, you know, just as the big endorsements come around– Al Gore, the two biggest unions in the country– Howard Dean is suddenly on a much bigger stage, a much brighter spotlight. It’s at that moment that he begins to say a lot of things that just don’t look like what most people would want out of their commander-in-chief.

For instance, he floats an unsubstantiated rumor that somehow President Bush was tipped off by the Saudis before Sept. 11 that the attacks were going to happen. A few days later he said well I didn’t actually believe that rumor. This is the kind of thing that especially if you’re not somebody who has been following politics very closely, you’re going to say, you know, what was he thinking? He had stumble after stumble over the course of about three weeks that he just… he was just still trying to recover from the last one when the next one would hit him.

GWEN IFILL: Matea, as you were traveling around the country with candidate, Governor Dean, what seemed of all these stumbles that Karen was talking about, what seemed to be the key things that tripped him up along the way?

MATEA GOLD: Well, I really think the pivotal moment came in early December when Saddam Hussein was caught. That morning Governor Dean came out and addressed all of us in an impromptu news conference and was very statesman like. He praised the president. He praised the military. He called it a great day for America, but his inclination to really speak his mind really caught up with him.

The next day he gave a speech in Los Angeles and he said actually America was not safer with Hussein in custody. And even some of his supporters who agreed with him with that statement felt that it was just impolitic and that he was giving himself an opening to Bush and the Republicans. And I think at that moment some seeds of doubt began to creep in and people began to worry that perhaps he would be vulnerable in a general election.

GWEN IFILL: But Howard Dean first caught on at least to the wide public at large, it seems, when he grabbed the mantel as the anti-war candidate. Did that just not carry him through into the primary season?

MATEA GOLD: Well, I think what is another irony for Dean is that in many ways by taking on Bush so strongly with the war he really empowered disaffected Democrats to feel they actually had a chance against this war-time president.

Once he did that, those Democrats then turned and looked at the field and decided, you know what — a Vietnam veteran who is tall, who looks statesman like — perhaps is the better person to carry this mantel. And so I don’t think the message disappeared but I think people were looking for someone who really had the whole package to take on the president.

GWEN IFILL: Dan, let’s talk about a couple of regional issues. One was when he made the comment about how Democrats ought to be able to go off the white guys in the pick-up trucks who have confederate flags on the back and southerners took offense to that.

And another time when he said that he didn’t understand — an old, four years old interview was unearthed in which he criticized the Iowa caucuses and the power they had. Did those, would those have had the same impact on any other candidate other than the frontrunner?

DAN BALZ: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think they would have gotten nearly the attention or the scrutiny or the coverage that Governor Dean got for them. The confederate flag issue was a funny one. He made a similar comment about a year ago this time at a Democratic National Committee meeting. It passed without much of a blip.

In fact, he got a lot of applause for it. But he wasn’t the frontrunner at the time. He was the guy who was inspiring the crowd and putting some backbone into the Democratic Party at a time when party activists felt that’s what was needed.

When it came around again he thought he was on the same ground but he was in a much different place. It was similar with the comments about Iowa . He’s tried to explain those and he did at the time. But it was the kind of thing that one of the local television stations in Des Moines gave that story I think 20 minutes or 15 minutes the night it broke.

I mean it’s unprecedented to get that kind of attention, but that’s what happens when you’re the frontrunner.

GWEN IFILL: Karen, in the end, how did John Kerry, who was considered to be dead in the water at the end of the year sneak by Howard Dean?

KAREN TUMULTY: Well, as Matea suggested, part of what happened to him is that the rest of the party caught up with him. At the beginning of the race, the conventional wisdom was that the democrats needed to match Bush on national security, to agree with him on national security so they could then go and argue it out on domestic issues.

Well, Dean proved that that was not the formula. So essentially all the other candidates– John Kerry probably leading the way– moved much closer to Dean’s message.

The other thing that he did was tactically, strategically he went to Iowa , he was standing there as the Dean supernova exploded in the sky. He was standing in the right place to catch the fallout. That I think more than anything else is what explains why john Kerry is where he is today.

GWEN IFILL: Matea, I understand that the Dean press corps decided to give the governor a little farewell gift in advance of his farewell today, a t-shirt that said establishment media and on the back, we have the power.

In the end did Governor Dean feel that he was a victim of the establishment media such as yourself or ourselves or did he feel that, or did he agree with any of the announcements we’re putting forward tonight about what his missteps were along the way.

MATEA GOLD: You know actually, Gwen, when we gave him that t-shirt yesterday he said the establishment media trumps the Internet but not for long. It was something he complained about a lot.

On one hand he would say if you’re the frontrunner, you’re running for president you have to be able to take the heat. But he also felt that he was treated unfairly. He would complain that his comments were taken out of context, that people could do searches on Lexus Nexus and pull a fragment out of something he said and misrepresent it.

It’s something that really frustrated him. I think it speaks to his inexperience on the national stage and really being prepared to deal with the bright spotlight that came with running for president. We decided that we would take on the big name establishment media that he so often teased us with on the trail.

GWEN IFILL: Matea, Dan Balz and Karen Tumulty, thank you all very much.