In New Hampshire, it’s the season. Snow in the mountains. Ice on the roads. Skiers on the lifts. Presidential candidates trying to romance and recruit the political people and activists that can still make the difference in New Hampshire. The battle’s begun. Not the war to topple Saddam Hussein, but the bloodless political conflict between the Democrats for the 2004 presidential nomination.
Even in the age of the endless television sound bite that subsumes the airwaves in the three months before the vote, real politics still matters in New Hampshire. On a windy Sunday afternoon, I’m in Three Tomatoes restaurant in Lebanon, N.H. Howard Dean, four-term governor of Vermont, has just walked in the door leading a small entourage. Nothing fancy. Just coffee, a sign-up sheet and Dean going table to table — without handlers. Chatting with people, shaking hands, discussing issues great and small. And then he’s introduced by Cliff Below, liberal champion, one of six surviving Democratic state senators after the November 2002 electoral bloodbath in New Hampshire, and still uncommitted to a candidate.
The smallish room is packed. Then Dean starts to speak. I’ve heard my share of forgettable stump speeches with lots of rhetoric, feel-good lines, winks and little substance. But Dean, as he gets going, has a lot to say. Renewable energy is a national security issue. We need to free ourselves from Middle Eastern oil. “If we had a renewable energy policy we would not be sending our kids to Iraq.” A prerequisite for peace in the Middle East is for the United States to seriously pressure the Saudis, Syrians and Iranians to stop support for terrorism.
Dean evokes Harry Truman. “We have to have a party that believes in our message.” Dean says what he thinks. He wouldn’t have permitted the delivery of the North Korean missiles to Yemen. He would have paid for them and kept them. Dean hasn’t seen a smoking gun that would justify war with Iraq. He’s much more concerned about how federal money is spent and balancing the budget than about tax cuts for the rich.
And, of course, as a doctor, he has an effective outline for bringing heath insurance to all Americans, modeled after an expansion of Vermont’s success. On his controversial support for gay civil unions, Dean says, “Never deny human rights because it is politically inconvenient.” A standup guy.
Suddenly there’s a warm feeling in the room. He’s saying things of real substance that make sense. Not just what people want to hear. Dean’s obviously a very smart man. That couldn’t hurt. It feels like this guy has a real chance. People are signing up, talking to Michael King and Kurt Ehrenberg, Dean’s New Hampshire organizers.
New Hampshire is famously independent. People take politics seriously here. That’s good news. Voters here, as often as not, pick a new face, an underdog, an unknown to send a message to power, to respond to the needs of the country. In 2000, John McCain crushed George W. Bush with the help of independent voters who can pick a party on Election Day. I was one of them. In the past, before Bush, if you lost New Hampshire — at least if the media said you lost — you didn’t get to be president.
New Hampshire voters persuaded Lyndon Johnson not to run for re-election, and instead tried to end the Vietnam War, chose Jimmy Carter in response to the crimes of Richard Nixon, picked Gary Hart over Walter Mondale. There is occasionally a down side to message sending — Pat Buchanan over Bob Dole and Lamar Alexander, to wit.
Dean is creating a below-the-radar stir in New Hampshire. He has something to say, and people are listening. The political polls so far are mostly about name recognition. And most people nationally have not begun to pay attention. But in the rural fastness and small-town gray streets of the Granite State, something is happening.
Howard Dean is talking common sense in an age of willful delusion and imperial nightmares. My friend Jan, who’s been known to shake things up, is organizing a house party for Howard in my town of Warner. There’s a buzz: “Have you heard about Howard Dean?”
Roy Morrison is a writer living in Warner, N.H.