Have we ever seen someone like Howard Dean in modern American politics? He has caused a dramatic shift in the political debate and landscape over the last 12 months. His arrival, ascent and fall have been remarkable to watch. Sure, we’ve seen political outsiders gain momentum in the past, and some have won elected office. But have any of them moved from outsider to apparently overwhelming favorite to concession as quickly as Mr. Dean? He was considered the frontrunner in the polls leading up to Iowa and New Hampshire and then failed to win a single primary or caucus, other than his home state of Vermont. Why? How?
Here are three humble submissions to the cacophony of armchair quarterbacks dissecting his campaign’s demise:
What was the Message?
We know he disagreed with the current administration’s leadership. We know he was against the war, and that he disagreed that Saddam’s capture was significant. And we know his campaign was fabulously successful at raising money online and energizing many Americans. But much of what we know about Mr. Dean and his message concerned what he was against… the war in Iraq, Washington insiders, tax cuts, George Bush. We rarely heard him talk about what he was for. His message was very reactionary. Dean seemed caught in the outsider’s role, never able to put forth clear policy proposals. His initial message was strategically savvy, but his campaign never evolved the message in a tactical way. And isn’t it ironic that Mr. Dean billed himself as the outsider, yet kept lining up yesterday’s Democrats and Washington insiders to endorse him? Bradley, Gore, Harkins, and Carter were paraded out front, but didn’t these endorsements clash with his entire message?
Anger is Not Enough, and He Had Too Much
Staying with the message for a moment… He was angry, and tapped into the frustration of some Americans.
His campaign events were often described as pseudo-revival meetings – long on excitement and emotion – but in retrospect they were also short on detail, with seemingly little behind the anger and emotion. We like our leaders to show they are human. But Mr. Dean seemed too emotional, too angry, not balanced enough to lead us in a challenging and dangerous world.
Lighten up, Howie
One of the keys to being a good leader and communicator is to demonstrate a little self-deprecation and a sense of humor. In the 1984 presidential election, Ronald Reagan was battling suggestions that his age was an issue. He effectively took that issue off the table in a debate with Walter Mondale by saying: “I refuse to make age an issue in this campaign, and will not exploit the youth and inexperience of my opponent.” The room erupted in laughter and the issue rarely came up again. He hadn’t gotten any younger, but reporters and opponents generally stopped talking about it.
Mr. Dean failed to demonstrate such humor and self-deprecation. He made an attempt to change late in his campaign with the appearance on Letterman, among other things, but it was too little, too late.
In the end, Mr. Dean was great for American politics. His initial message was compelling. But closer inspection ultimately revealed the lack of appropriate depth in his thinking and a shallow message relying too much on negativity. His passionate pronouncements clearly shaped the platforms of his democratic competitors, brought attention to the process and inspired many younger American voters to become more politically involved. But his many tactical errors brought his campaign to an abrupt end. It nothing else, and for our purposes here, he has provided us with emphatically clear examples of both good and bad communication.
> Beacon Issue – March 2004
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