Live from New York

That’s me with a man named Kos, backstage at the Dean rally in Bryant Park a few hours ago — which, according to the Dean blog, was attended by about ten thousand people.

I can’t say I came away from the rally sold on the guy, but after the past few years of utterly invertebrate Democrats, it’s awfully refreshing to see a member of the opposition party actually behave like — well — a member of an opposition party. And if you’ve seen Dean on the Sunday shows, and perhaps been somewhat underwhelmed — he’s much better with a crowd. Maybe it’s just the ice-water-in-hell effect, but as I keep saying, we don’t need mushmouth DLC’ers (Gallants, if you will) — we need angry Democrats who can fire up a crowd, and who aren’t afraid to point out that President Pinnochio’s nose grows a little longer every time he opens his mouth. And you don’t have to be sold on him to see that Dean’s definitely a contender for that role.

Next day update: the Times runs a subtly condescending look at the Dean phenomenon this morning, alluding to “feisty crowds” full of “Birkenstock liberals,” “aging flower children and the tongue-studded next generation.”

I think the reporter accidentally wandered into a Phish concert and got confused. What I saw was a crowd full of normal people from various walks of life — there was no scent of patchouli hanging in the air, nor were there any drum circles or giant puppets. But that’s the media narrative, and they have to stick to it: Dean, the outsider candidate running from the far-left fringe. And what puts him on the far-left fringe, in the media’s eyes? The fact that he refuses to fit neatly into the other media narrative: that of the enormously popular wartime President, whose challengers must tread lightly or risk appearing “divisive” in these troubled times.

What I saw last night was a centrist candidate — too conservative for my tastes, honestly — who nonetheless has the cojones to take on the President of the United States. Watching Dean last night, I found it hard to imagine him standing on a debate stage repeating some thirty-eight times, “I agree with my opponent.” I know it was just a stump speech, but stump speeches can tell you a lot. I watched Michael Dukakis address an outdoor rally of San Francisco Democrats in the Marina District in 1988 , a picture-perfect setting with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background — and this was at the end of eight long years of the Reagan Administration, and by all rights the crowd should have been eating out of the palm of his hand — but at the end of it, the mood could only be described, charitably, as “dispirited,” as everyone wandered off to find a quiet place somewhere to lay down and die. Okay, not really, but that’s how it felt.

Well, Dean doesn’t strike me as another Michael Dukakis.

Nonetheless, the Times seems a bit confused by the whole thing, unsure how this fits into the standard template of horse-race coverage. Where are the crowds coming from? they seem to wonder. It is only August of 2003!

“He’s not running a campaign, he’s running a movement,” wrote Natasha C., one of four people the Dean campaign invited to chronicle the trip on their Web logs. “These are protest-size crowds, these are not politics-size crowds, and that’s the critical difference.”

But it is unclear what the movement is for.

Dr. Dean’s standard presentation is a smorgasbord of universal health insurance, opposition to the Iraq war, balanced budgets, tax-cut repeal, affirmative action, gay rights, early-childhood intervention and a broad appeal for “community.” The defining theme is all about getting rid of the incumbent.

Well, yes, see that’s the thing. That’s what the “movement” is about. Getting rid of the incumbent. Finding someone willing to confront his rigid, right-wing extremism head on, unapologetically. Someone willing to stand up and ask the perennial question: are you better off now than you were four years ago?

That doesn’t really seem “unclear” to me at all.

Katha Pollitt had some similar thoughts in a column for The Nation recently. I’m excerpting from it at length, for those of you who don’t like to follow links, but I do encourage you to read the whole thing.

What did Howard Dean do to make the media so snarky about his primary run? Now that he has emerged as a major fundraiser with flocks of enthusiastic supporters, a vigorous campaign staff, a bag full of Internet tricks and respectable — and rising — poll numbers, the pundits and reporters have to go through the motions of taking him seriously: In a single August week he was on the cover of Time and Newsweek and had a major story in U.S. News & World Report. But aside from some curiously cheerful coverage in the Wall Street Journal, they obviously don’t like him. He’s “brusque,” “testy,” the “ex-Governor of a speck of a state” and “a shrill Northeasterner,” Karen Tumulty wrote in Time. “It’s hard to imagine Dean’s glorious season ending without disappointment,” adds John Cloud in his profile in the same issue, in which he draws a labored and precious similarity between Dean and George W. Bush (both come from rich Republican families, both went to Yale, partied hearty, speak Spanish — never mind that Dean went to medical school while George II relied on his father’s cronies to set him up in the oil business). “The Doctor Is In — In Your Face!” warns U.S. News. Over at Newsweek (“Destiny or Disaster?”), Jonathan Alter also finds “the diminutive family doctor” “brusque” and says he “strutted like a little Napoleon onto the floor of the usually genteel Vermont State Senate.”

— snip —

… I’ve talked to quite a few Dean supporters, including mainstream Democrats, lapsed voters, flaming leftists, Naderites, gay activists, civil libertarians, anti-death penalty lawyers, pro-single payer health professionals and even a surprising number of Nation staffers. I have yet to find one who mistakes Dean for Eugene Debs, or even for Paul Wellstone, whose line about belonging to the “democratic wing of the Democratic Party” Dean likes to borrow. They’ve gone for Dean because, alone among the major Democratic contenders, he has taken Bush on in an aggressive and forthright way, because he’s calling the craven Democratic Party to account and because they think he can win. “I have no illusions that Dean is a true progressive,” said one young graduate student who describes himself as a leftist, “but I don’t care. I just want to beat Bush. If Dean has the momentum, I say, go for it.”

It’s all about the anger, and ultimately I think that’s what has the media confused. Anger at the Boy King doesn’t fit into their templates, and if it continues, it means they’re going to have to come up with some new ones, and there’s nothing the media hates more than trying to figure out a new template when they’ve already put so much work into the old one.

(Edited slightly for clarity.)