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How Dean Followed in Goldwater’s Steps

by Jeffrey J. Matthews on Jan 31, 2004

Jeffery J. Matthews

What a difference two weeks can make in a presidential primary campaign! Seven days before the Iowa caucuses, Howard Dean led the Democratic pack by at least 12 percentage points in polls. But his campaign has been in a tailspin ever since. John Kerry trounced the maverick front-runner in Iowa and repeated his victory in New Hampshire, where Dean had led the field by as many as 23 points.

Many factors explain Dean’s fall, but certainly he proved a poor student of presidential election history. Dean’s early aggressiveness and his antiwar, anti-establishment campaign had effectively rallied the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” and propelled him ahead of his rivals. This development caused pundits from the Washington Post, CNN, CNBC and the National Review to ask whether Dean, the firebrand of 2004, was the Democrats’ version of Republican Barry Goldwater of 1964.

Dean should have taken the comparison seriously. Glaring parallels exist between the two candidates’ rise and fall. In the end, Dean’s inability to avoid Goldwater’s mistakes caused his incandescent candidacy to burn out in a similar fashion.

Goldwater first considered a presidential run after the 1960 election, when John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard M. Nixon. Many disillusioned Republicans suspected Democratic vote fraud, but more important to Goldwater was Nixon’s lackluster campaign. After the election, the Arizona senator bolstered the GOP by energizing and uniting its grass-roots conservative constituency. His “straight-shooting” articulation of conservative principles enabled him to assume the leadership of a burgeoning movement that eventually came to dominate the American political scene.

Two years before the 1964 election, few believed that Goldwater could successfully compete for, much less win, the Republican nomination, but the senator’s assertive and candid speeches on the GOP dinner circuit proved increasingly popular. Goldwater was a maverick within his own party, but a maverick with a vision, one that galvanized a national constituency and led to his nomination.

Goldwater’s entry into the primaries, however, exposed the risks of a rigid and brash approach to politics. His extensive, controversial public record had never been scrutinized by the national press or criticized by opponents from his own party. In the aftermath of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Goldwater’s bellicose Cold War rhetoric made many uneasy, as did his conservative domestic agenda, which included making Social Security voluntary.

Moreover, journalists and Goldwater’s challengers reveled in the senator’s penchant for “truth-telling” and willingness to shoot from the hip. The Arizonan “was great,” one reporter noted. “All we had to do was keep hitting him with questions and then wait until he slipped and we had our headlines.” One headline read “GOLDWATER SETS GOALS: END SOCIAL SECURITY, HIT CASTRO.”

The steady amplification (and not uncommon distortion) of Goldwater’s policy positions, his numerous gaffes and the hard-hitting attacks by primary opponents contributed to a vividly negative Goldwater image. Many voters came to perceive the senator as “an extremist,” “a hothead,” and “a nut.”

This perception, which Johnson capitalized on brilliantly in the 1964 general election, proved impossible to erase. Goldwater lost in a landslide, and became a martyr to the conservative cause.

Howard Dean should have appreciated the Goldwater parallels long before the Iowa caucuses. Like Goldwater’s, Dean’s candidacy follows an extremely contentious presidential election featuring charges of vote fraud and intraparty strife over ineffective campaigning. Dean also entered the primaries as an anti-establishment outsider, largely unknown.

Keys to Dean’s appeal included his passion, candor and independence, which were apparent in his unabashed opposition to the apparently popular Iraq war and his proposal to completely rescind the Bush tax cuts. But Dean, like Goldwater, committed more than his share of gaffes, and he offended some Democrats by disparaging his rivals as “Bush lite.” Many voters perceived him as “a hothead.”

Dean, like Goldwater, inspired a dedicated following. And through historic grass roots organization raised millions from a multitude of small contributors and compiled invaluable (e-)mailing lists. Dean waited too long, however, to decide whether he preferred acting as a martyr to the anti-Bush, anti-Iraq, anti-tax cut, anti-establishment cause or becoming president of the United States. It was crucial that he stop building a Goldwater-like image and work to attract moderate and independent voters. Now, it’s too late.

Goldwater is famous for having offered voters “a choice, not an echo” in 1964, but a majority of Americans today, as then, are more inclined to choose “the echo” if the alternative appears stark and negative.

Jeffrey J. Matthews teaches leadership at the School of Business and Leadership at the University of Puget Sound. He is the author of the "Alanson B. Houghton: Ambassador of the New Era" (2004) and a writer for the History News Service.