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Bloggers, Call In

Our “Midmorning” broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio tomorrow (Friday, 9 a.m. Central, 10 a.m. Eastern) takes up the “bubble” questions that obsess the blogosphere: the boom and bust of Howard Dean’s Internet campaign, the “miracle” and/or the media manipulation inside the Kerry comeback, the reality and the future of Internet democracy.

I invite all the faithful readers here and at BOPnews to weigh in. The toll-free phone is 1-800-242-2828.

Our other guests will include William Saletan of SLATE; Tom Schaller of Salon; and Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker.

Here’s the way I’ll toss it to the radio listeners:

As they say in politics: one day you’re a peacock, the next day you’re a feather duster. Or in the case of Senator John Kerry, you’re a peacock, then a feather duster, and then a peacock again. Or if you’re Howard Dean, you go from peacock to pigeon feather and then you pretty nearly disappear. Overnight. Literally, within a few days in January, Dean collapsed from prohibitive favorite and front-runner to gasping also-ran.

Are there rules to this game? Is the building of a popular consensus around a candidate an open political process, or a pinball game?

Do voters really drive it? Do the media companies, or the Internet tilt it?

Is the game that seems to have chosen John Kerry fair? Is it wise? Is it over?

Would you understand this process of picking the people’s choice if it were unfolding in China, or Sweden, or Canada?

Over to you, bloggers. I’ll be delighted to hear you on the clear Minnesota air. Just dial: 1-800-242-2828 and be prepared to start talking. Thanks.

Live Radio Again: Listen In! Call In!

     The more things change… 

     So here I am at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul, the home of Garrison Keillor and the parent of “Marketplace. ”  Starting on Monday morning, February 9 (9 a.m. Central, 10 a.m. Eastern) I will be hosting MPR’s live call-in “Midmorning” show. 

     In the first hour on Monday, we will be second-guessing President Bush’s inquiry into the intelligence gap around Iraq’s WMDs, with the Melvin Goodman, formerly CIA, and Walter Pincus of the Washington Post.

     In the second hour, we’ll be visiting Mars with Ken Croswell, the lyrical astronomer who puts the Hubble telescope on your coffee table.  He blew us away five years ago with his “Magnificent Universe,” and he’s done it again with “Magnificent Mars.”

     This is an experimental gig for the next month or so.  Part of the experiment for me is to see whether you’ll listen on MPR’s live stream and call to the conversation. 

     Go to the Midmorning page here and follow your nose to the listening instructions.  Then call toll-free: 1-800-0242-2828 and give us your best shot.

     For a lot of us, it should feel like old times with a new Internet dimension.  I’ll do my damndest to make it sing.  See you on the radio!



Live Radio Again: Listen In! Call In!

     The more things change… 

     So here I am at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul, the home of Garrison Keillor and the parent of “Marketplace.”  Starting on Monday morning, February 9 (9 a.m. Central, 10 a.m. Eastern) I will be hosting MPR’s live call-in “Midmorning” show. 

     In the first hour on Monday, we will be second-guessing President Bush’s inquiry into the intelligence gap around Iraq’s WMDs, with the Melvin Goodman, formerly CIA, and Walter Pincus of the Washington Post.

     In the second hour, we’ll be visiting Mars with Ken Croswell, the lyrical astronomer who puts the Hubble telescope on your coffee table.  He blew us away five years ago with his “Magnificent Universe,” and he’s done it again with “Magnificent Mars.”

For Dave Winer & Company

     Pulling on Dave Winer’s open thread

     I like that phrase out of Sigmund Freud: “… the narcissism of small differences.”  Meaning: we have (and enjoy!) the fiercest arguments with the people we most nearly agree with on everything.  So I toss my carrots into the opinion stew here with the feeling that we are all pretty close on the major points.  To wit: that the Dean campaign (the Clark draft, too) gave us all an exciting glimpse of a different sort of democracy–and the possibility (this year, next time and/or indefinitely into the future) is still around.  The Dean phenomenon in politics, after all, was always just the visible tip of an Internet iceberg that is unquestionably transforming commerce, corporate communications, music distribution, Iranian politics, family letters home, prime-time television habits, airline ticketing and a thousand other things.  And the iceberg is still moving glacially (but fast!) over the society.  I think most of us agree that we like this architecture of Internet politics–its individuality and its community, its accessibility and speed and all those other good things.  None of it was crushed with Dean in New Hampshire.  My own particular take–and I sense lots of agreement even here–it that Big Media came out of its cave to beat Dean over the head with Kerry, and that that this is a Problem.  This was not critical journalism at work, this was an industrial offensive from a declining sector of the information and intelligence business, a corporatized, overconcentrated, underventilated giant that feels itself threatened.  The newsmag headlines, the network cliches about “anger,” the emptiness of the “electability” standard (which newsmags giveth and taketh away, without ever having to show evidence) and that completely mindless, truly Goebbels-esque repetition of the scream tape–all the manipulated frenzy of the last three weeks smacked of a fiercely anti-democratic bullying that I find personally, professionally and publicly offensive.  I confess some naivete here.  I am surprised the old devils tried it; I am surprised that they got away with it.  I bought the spirit of Larry Lessig‘s complaint a month ago:  “Our pathology is that we’ve become such passive political creatures that we respond to these broadcast manipulations in a way that’s totally predictable.”  And I bought into Larry’s hope that something had changed in the course of 2003, that it wouldn’t happen the same old way in 2004.  So we live and learn.  But the main thing we’re learning is that, as Jay Rosen says, “we have the tools.”  They are democratizing the world of information and opinion–yes, of journalism, whether the decrepit kings of the decaying castle like it or not. The Net is still there, and it’s still the happiest, most constructive place to be having this good conversation about real politics.   The rest of my two bits is here.  I’m tickled to be in on this discussion.  Thanks to all, Chris Lydon

After New Hampshire

Here’s what I’m learning: For those of us who like the sound of “Internet democracy,” who yearn for political and cultural renewal and “transformation,” the entrenched obstacle is not the old politics. It’s the old media.

Of course the 2004 campaign has been about media all along. If our politics has been about only One Thing since 9/11, I’d say it’s about the fight to rescue a Republic (“of the people, for the people, by the people“) from the temptations of Empire (of the foreign oil, for the corporate class, by the military). But if our politics is about more than one thing, the next most important fight is about voices in this democracy. Who gets to speak? Who gets to exercise more than a vote? Who’s empowered to join the conversation that defines the problem and makes a priority list of responses? Who gets to feel the rush of public engagement? The Internet invites a vast expansion of that expressive franchise. For the Internet-minded, the core issue in 2004 lies outside the party lines or the standard list of left-right choices. As blogger Matt Stoller has written, “we are witnessing a nonpartisan war between those reactionaries who reject the widening spatial boundaries of politics and those visionaries who embrace them.” Not the least of the Internet’s charm is that it reminds us subliminally of a beloved myth, the open American frontier. It reconnects us with both the free-speech and the community of town meetings. It fires up again the self-reliant Emersonian dream of a liberated nation of vocal non-conformists. “The Internet, like the frontier, is about creation, growth and open spaces,” Stoller observes. And for all those reasons, we are seeing, it scares some people and some interests half to death.

The Howard Dean campaign (much more than Howard Dean himself) has come to stand for the possibility of an Internet democracy. From the beginning there was no separating the “political” and “media” tracks of the campaign’s offensive. Didn’t he say early on that he was running for president because the alternative was to spend the rest of his life yelling at the TV set? Dean’s defining thrust was against the war in Iraq, in which even before it began the big newspapers and TV networks were embedded. His first contribution was simply to sound an anti-war alarm that institutional media had muffled. Millions of people knew intuitively that his warning was wise; millions more know it now. He began with a bold exercise in definition–a job of critical journalism that our big media don’t perform these days. In large dimensions and small (like his chippy defiance of Tim Russert), Dean’s campaign was a critique of the somnolent self-satisfaction that runs through our housecat press. And people loved him for it.

My two-track verdict on the Dean campaign to this point is this. The politics of it is powerful, in a real sense triumphant. But the media strategy in it has proved dangerous, maybe terminal in this 2004 campaign. The political machine surrendered to Dean before Christmas. But an ugly media machine has risen up in January and very nearly destroyed him.

First, the politics: the Dean campaign has recharged our limping democracy for a generation, with vivid fresh examples of what citizenship can mean: all that self-starting civic energy, the MeetUp mobilizations, the decentralized consensus, the articulate idealism, the viral activism. Bill Bradley called it the best thing he’d seen in politics for 20 years or more. Is there any question that the model of mayor’s races and Congressional campaigns in the future will be found in the citizen spirit that the Deaniacs put to work? This is the point that I believe old pros like Al Gore and Tom Harkin were endorsing. They’ve seen the future of progressive organizing, and they know it works. In its small-sum fundraising on the Internet, the Dean campaign cleansed the Augean stables of campaign finance when bought politics had come to seem the unbeatable rule. And it put a compelling short list of serious issues on the table for all to argue: the extension of health care, the refinancing and reinvention of public education, responsible realism in a world that wants to respect us. Even as Howard Dean’s vote totals were coming up short, the field of his rivals was sounding more and more like him on the identifiable issues. It misuses the language to call this a political defeat.

For the same reasons, John Kerry’s “victory” in Iowa and New Hampshire seems to me thin in its political dimensions. In his confused reiterations, his no-apology apologies about an unpopular war in Iraq, Kerry has conceded a point to Dean, not won one. A child of privilege and a multimillionaire, two years ahead of George W. Bush in Yale’s secret sanctum Skull & Bones, Kerry makes an implausible populist, no candidate to open up a stuffy Washington establishment. Kerry was an authentic hero of our generation in his twenties–in hellish warfare and then the anti-war movement. But the presidential campaign emphasizes the combat bravado, not the misery of his letters home from Vietnam: “…I will never stop trying to bring to people the conviction of how wasteful and asinine is a human expenditure of this kind,” he wrote in 1968. Where is that insight, that voice, today? Kerry is campaigning this year as Bush Heavy. Sometimes I wonder if he is trying to unlearn his own lessons from Vietnam. In his go-along vote on war with Iraq in October, 2002, Kerry betrayed his past and core peacenik constituency. He was a dupe, and he still can’t admit it. In brief: beside the slippery claim of “electability” and the Bush slogan “Bring it On!” is there any mandate implied in the votes for John Kerry?
No, the results so far are not about politics. They’re about an assault by commercial media on the very idea of a self-willed, self-defining citizenry. Howard Dean scares the institutional media out of their wits–not because of who he is or what he might do as president, but because of what he and “Internet democracy” say about them.

In September, 2002, right about the moment Howard Dean was deciding to run, the nonpareil media critic Jon Katz was writing prophetically on the New York University web page: “The flight of the young has become central for our understanding of what journalism is or needs to be. The young drive our new information culture. They invented and understand new forms of media–especially the Net the the Web… They understand, too, the extraordinary power and meaning of interactivity, and how it is redefining narrative and story-telling… But journalism doesn’t get it, and has resisted the idea fiercely. Newspapers, newsmagazines and TV networks haven’t radically changed form or content in half a century, despite their aging audiences, and growing competition from new media sources. They are allergic to interactivity. Increasingly, it appears they are incapable of it.”

Katz forecast it all. The Dean campaign is everything that contemporary journalism is not. If you believe he is their worst nightmare, it’s small wonder they tried to crush him like a bug. Almost every touch from Big Media has been to cheapen the Dean cause, to miss the point, to find some personal excuse not to notice the Dean movement. “Who is the Real Howard Dean?” Time magazine asked. A week later Newsweek, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, put “Doubts About Dean” on the cover. Tom Brokaw testified on NBC that he hadn’t been able to discover any Internet effect on the voting in Iowa. On the night of the caucuses, Bob Novak averred on CNN that there never was any such thing as a Dean movement. These are famous last words from dinosaurs. Samantha Shapiro’s cover piece in the New York Times Magazine late last Fall was, oddly enough, a high and a low. She put her finger on the brainy idealism that had drawn young computer geeks from all over the country to Dean’s headquarters in Burlington, Vt., but she and the Times’ photographer also left the strong impression that these were strange barefoot nerds who’d concluded that a political campaign was a way to get laid.

Then came the infamous scream on caucus night in Des Moines. Here’s the simple test of news judgment: if you’d been in the frenzied hall with the Deaniacs that night and heard the candidate’s finale, would you have called home to report it? I saw a performance quite like it the night before in Iowa City, and thought nothing of it. Yet there it was on a ridiculous clip of party tape–a lot less embarrassing than, say, George H. W. Bush upchucking in Japan–but in a few thousand repetititons a new character had been launched, the “red-faced ranter” surrounded by somber doubts that he could be “presidential.”

The TV coverage of the New Hampshire returns was appalling. The big three networks stuck with prime-time entertainment. So we were stuck with cable panelists: hyperactive, all about themselves, not us or the country, a stream of cliches. No end of trite phrases were turned to trivialize Howard Dean and his effort. Though he’d never been credited with courage or forethought in crystallizing the dangers or doubts around Iraq, he could be demeaned now in second place on primary night as a mere anti-war candidate, a latter date McGovern. And of course he was dissed continually as a caricature of “anger,” no matter that a large majority of New Hampshire voters told the exit-pollsters that they were angry, too. William Kristol made the only point I’ll remember: that as long as Iraq remains a bleeding wound, John Kerry’s vote on the war leaves him wide open to Howard Dean’s critique.

Richard Reeves made the shrewd observation on our “Blogging of the President” broadcast Sunday night that something fundamental had changed since John F. Kennedy and television exalted eachother in 1960. What had happened was that the TV networks discovered that American audiences were more interested in football than in politics. Sure enough, we are being conditioned again this week to understand that everything that happens in the Superbowl is more important than almost anything at stake in a presidential campaign.

It’s a dismal moment in American media, and just the right time to be developing a real conversation on the Web. The revolution will not be televised, but maybe it will be blogged.

The Blogging of the President 2004: the Radio Show


The Blogging of the President: 2004, a live radio special

     Sunday January 25 from 9-11 pm EST, from Minnesota Public Radio and airing on public radio stations nationwide (here’s a list of stations playing the program). Christopher Lydon will be hosting the first sustained blog conversation on network radio and you’re all invited to join in.

     The purpose is to air out the internet effects that the political campaign has suddenly made obvious. We want to encompass the new voices and communities, the critique of institutional journalism, the expressive possibilities beyond politics, the doubts, the hype, and the truth.

     Among the guests will be Atrios, Andrew Sullivan, Josh Marshall, Jeff Jarvis, Frank Rich, and many more, including you, if you’ll tune in, phone in, or just blog it as we speak. If this were a political campaign, which it’s not, the slogan would be: Take back the conversation.

The Details:

     Check your local listings to see if your local public radio outlet will carry the show. If not, we urge you to inquire of your own public radio station about their carrying the program. Here’s a list of stations that have committed to carry the broadcast:

WBEZ, Chicago
KERA, Dallas
WGBH, Boston (Hour 2 only)
WZBC, Boston (Hour 1 only, cross-promoting to WGBH)
WAMU, Washington DC
KUOW, Seattle
KNOW, Mpls/St. Paul
KOPB, Portland, OR
WNKU, Cincinnati
WCAI/WNAN – Cape & Islands Public Radio
WHRV, Norfolk, VA
WNED-AM, Buffalo, NY
Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana
Vermont Public Radio
WPSU, University Park, PA
North Country Public Radio, Canton, NY
KRWG, Las Cruces, NM

     If you live in a different area, find your station and encourage them to carry the program:

     Or, get it streamed over the web at: We will also list all streams on BOPnews on the day of the show. We welcome all suggestions and questions. Post them here in the comments or email As soon as we know the call-in number, we’ll let you know! This is your show, bloggers, so pass this link around:

Case Reopened: Blogging after Iowa

      Does anybody here know how to play this game? as Casey Stengel asked about his New York Mets. 

     Did the Internet draft the wrong candidate?

     Did John Kerry and Iowa kill what we call “the transformation”? 

     Are we back (in New Hampshire) to a conventional slugging contest in the old media and field organization?

     Can Wesley Clark still be described as a candidate from the blogosphere? 

     Will Kerry ever be bloggable?  Does it matter?

     Just where are we now in the narrative line about the evolution of campaigning and the conversation of democracy? 

    Tuesday was a hard day of reappraisal among blog fantasists.  But 24 hours after the Iowa returns I am feeling better and not so humble again.  Why is it that only bloggers feel expected to apologize for our bad guesses?  The shrewest pollsters, pundits and opportunists in the game (including the Dean schmoozers Al Gore, Bill Bradley, Tom Harkin and Jimmy Carter!) have all given us faulty snapshots of the political rockslide we’re in–and will be in for some time.  Iowa was long supposed to be all Gephart and Dean.  Two days before the caucuses it was said to be a four-way tie.  Every guess about about this kaleidoscope is an instant absurdity.

    It is still the most absorbingly fresh and exciting presidential campaign since 1960, and the Internet effect is still critical, no matter the Dean flop in Iowa.  For a year now, it’s the Internet (including MoveOn and MeetUp) that has crystallized the possibility, articulated the opportunity, enlisted younger voters–and spectacularly built the turnout in Iowa.  And the campaign is still young.

   We bloggers should be prepared for a contest of sorts with the dinosaurs of old media.  The Iowa results were a victory for the other guys.  Television–both the paid commercials and the robotic, idiotic repetition in “news” coverage of the “angry” theme–was brutal on Dean and the amateur energy of his campaign.  The national newmagazines mugged him–TIME with its “Who is the Real Howard Dean” cover, Newsweek with its “Doubts About Dean.”  [I am reading with giddiness and horror Kevin Phillips’ “American Dynasty,” detailing doubts about the House of Bush that the newsmags have always avoided.]  Tom Brokaw reported on caucus night in Iowa that there was no discernible trace of Internet influence on the race.  Bob Novak opined on CNN that there never was any such thing as a Dean movement. 

     Chins up, bloggers!  We can take this teasing.  Yes, I gulp at my own misreading of John Kerry’s return to life in Iowa.  And still Kerry in Iowa was an unconvincing win.   A very large portion of the voters he converted in the last hours of the Iowa campaign were over 65.  Out of his own pocket, Kerry’s campaign spent more than $50 for each of the caucus votes he won Monday night.  Is this the new politics?  Has it crushed, or supplanted, or undone the new politics we’ve been looking at?  Your guess is as good as mine.

The Truman Show

Dateline: Iowa City, from Chris Lydon and Matt Stoller

This is Dean’s speech at the Iowa Memorial Union: Part One Part Two.

     Listen to the Dean rally at the Iowa Memorial Union and hear what we saw: Dean’s campaign is as modern on the ground as it is on the web. All the others feel retro next to the surging musical youth and energy of his enormous crowd–up to the fire code limit around 2000. Live performers, Tom Harkin, an SEIU pitch, Joan Jett, back-to-school free spirits from the University of Iowa crowd, precinct workers refining their caucus lists at tables all around the ballroom. This campaign is thriving, no matter the media line. We simply don’t believe the Des Moines Register tracking polls that had Dean plummeting toward a 16 percent showing. Our guess is that the “surge” the newspapers talk about is not really Kerry or Edwards. It is still Howard Dean’s race in the pulse and conviction of his troops. It was really cold last night, and still, they showed.

     It was funny to observe last night how the Dean followers in the flesh match the Deaniacs online. They talk to each other, for cryin’ out loud, as they wait for the candidate to arrive. They have an air of purpose, but a lot of mellow friendly feeling as well. The room was crowded but it was nonetheless easy for visitors to move around and make conversation. The lounge Dean used was crowded, but everyone had space, and could and did walk around. There were costumes, union people in purple shirts, Dean volunteers in orange hats (the room hit firecode capacity, at which point the volunteers left to allow for more Iowans to attend), a Dean mascot, and signs, real grassroots signs.

     It made you think of Tim Berners-Lee’s observation about our “fractal” society, in which people can make community in a cluster of 3, or 3000, and represent a state of 3-million, or a country of 300-million. It also reminded us–it’s a cliche by now–that we say the Dean campaign is “open source.” Well, it is, in the sense that if the candidate hadn’t shown up, somebody else would have made a speech and directed the labors of the campaign on caucus night. And if Howard Dean actually disappeared, these people in the Iowa Memorial Union might know how to rally with their kindred spirits on the Web to draft another standard bearer by next week. So we say: even if the Kerry surge is real ( purchased with some $2.5 million of the candidate’s own money), and even if the Edwards surge is real, the Dean phenomenon is something else. It is the future.

     To contrast: John Kerry and Gary Hart gave speeches in Iowa City on Saturday channeling the ghost of JFK, with hand gestures chopping at the air and Boston-trained skilled political hacks corralling the crowd into small spaces so it appeared larger than it was. The crowd jostled against itself, set against the angular structure of the suburban mall which was chosen, it seems, so the crowd would feel its own largeness. It was a Boston political event done by Bostonians, and it worked well for what it was. Kerry has dumped everything in favor of Iowa, and it shows in the Iowans complaining of all the calls they are getting from the Kerry organization, and in events like Saturday’s made-for-TV special.

     The Dean event, by contrast, didn’t just appear large and boisterous; it was large and boisterous. Dean’s appearance wasn’t derivative of a former TV icon so much as what you imagine Harry Truman’s presence to have been; a guy angry at plutocrats looting the country and speaking in staccato rhythm about it. ‘You know how mean these right-wingers are?’ Dean spouts before launching into a story about how the Department of Labor is telling employers not to worry about a new law mandating higher overtime for low paid workers because all they have to do to compensate is pay their workers less. And while other candidates might talk about the Republican administration and its problems, Dean just gets right down it. They are mean. But the Dean experience went beyond a Trumanesque figure of righteous populist fury; the event was staged along the very principles that animate his software: community oriented, fractal, and organizationally solid and self-sufficient.

     In terms of strategy, it’s clear that turnout for the caucuses will be very high, and that Dean has a high depth of support among his supporters. Still, Dean went out of his way to greet the Kucinich enthusiasts at his own rally last night, saying that Kucinich was the only authentic anti-war candidate in the race with him. If you’re guy doesn’t make it, he said, join us because we need all the support we can get. We gather that the Dean campaign is worried about their shortage of second place preferences, people who aren’t pro-Dean are anti-Dean. Lots of 1’s, very few 2’s. So he won’t have a big cushion in places where he doesn’t have a good start. The Kerry campaign, which we think bought their surge by dumping cash into the state, just hasn’t had the time to clean out the Democratic lists and teach their supporters, but they are banking on candidates who don’t meet the 15% threshold within caucuses to send their supporters over to Kerry. Every campaign is pursuing that strategy, because it’s clearly meant to capitalize on the anti-Dean sentiment among Iowans. What does this mean? Well, that’s not clear. Dean canvassers are telling us that many anti-Dean folk are saying abruptly that they are voting for Kerry/Edwards/Gephardt/whatever, but aren’t going to the caucus. This, of course, suggests that the other campaigns aren’t educating their supporters that you have to go to the caucus to support your candidate. Are any Dean people saying they’ll vote for Dean without going to the caucus? No, we were told. If they’re for Dean, they know they have to caucus. Beyond that, we don’t know what’s going on, and the polls are basically as much of a crapshoot as getting information based on talking to random Iowans listening in their own low-key way to Joan Jett.

     So that’s what we did. And for what it’s worth, we think that Dean’s superior organization and dedicated supporters will make the difference.

The Sound of the Surge: Campaign Notes

Dateline: Iowa City, with my BOPNews colleague Matt Stoller.

You can listen to John Edwards’s speech at the Dubuque County Democrats here: Part One Part Two Part Three

You can listen to John Kerry’s speech at Iowa City here: Part One Part Two Part Three

     The sense we’re hearing from Iowans is this: “we’ve been to the doctor, now we want a second opinion.” There is unmistakably a big surge and churn of uncertain opinions. John Kerry and John Edwards are the buzz. There will probably be a record (still small) caucus turnout. But this migration in thinking could well lead back to the best organized candidacy, that of Howard Dean. Dick Gephardt makes four among the possible finalists, but he feels more and more like a tired family obligation. Wesley Clark is the very strange absence in Iowa. He would surely be at the top of the surge here on the eve of the caucuses. He dealt himself out of a very promising Iowa opportunity, it turns out, but he has also given himself a strategic spotlight in New Hampshire. So the scene is full of ironies and swerves yet to come.

     Howard Dean has all the right positions: anti-war, anti-Bush, politically courageous, but well, something about his brusque manner rubs raw against Iowan sensibilities. There’s a reticence among Midwesterners – polite, kind, thoughtful (we were pulled over by a cop for running a red light last night, and the darling prince ended up just helping us with directions). They like their politicians to think before they speak. And Howard Dean, though he represents caucus goers’ universal enmity towards the Iraq war, ‘shoots from the hip’ a bit too often.

     There’s a funny sort of amnesia developing among the anti-war Iowa democrats which amounts to a sort of amnesty for the Senators who opened the gate to George Bush in Iraq. The anti-war consensus is wide and deep, but precisely because people are not fighting about the issue anymore they treat it like the past, almost Vietnam. Everyone gets it wrong once in awhile. People seem to be looking for two things: a positive outlook and a President. John Edwards is finally reaping the benefit of being the “nice guy in a nasty race.” John Kerry brings an air of command and the rugged old demeanor of some sort of Washington monument. In conversation with Iowans we don’t hear a lot of the anti-beltway sentiment that animates the Dean blogosphere and the Dean rationale – that the smug Senatorial class just doesn’t get it.

     The talk in the last few days is all about the Kerry and Edwards surges, and a rising turnout for what has traditionally been a cult event. But who’s actually losing support? Our guess is that it’s Gephardt who may have asked Iowa’s help one time too many.

     The volunteers canvassing the streets are Dean’s, looking glum but still numerous, bewildered at how a candidate that makes so much sense to them could make so little the people that, for this political moment, matter. But they are still here, and we suspect that will make the difference.

     We begin to imagine three levels of politics in this final churn. The internet realm is where the self-organized Dean campaign has made a fresh and potentially historic force for 2004. But then there is the media zone that drives the polls, a media zone where Howard Dean has been hammered in debates and in the press for anger, gaffes, shrillness and other mostly invented sins. Third, under everything is a foundation of paleo-politics, the bonds of union hall, farm organizations, and the traditional democratic party forums we’ve been sampling. It’s the mix of these three layers of history and political technology that makes the mystery. For example, Newsweek’s ‘Doubts about Dean’ cover story that makes news as much it reports it drove record numbers to the web where they sought their own non-Newsweek information on just who this guy is. So while the paleo and media narratives still have their effectg, there is another world, the Google world, which is telling a different story.

     And this is where the caucus format come into play. While John Edwards, John Kerry, and Dick Gephardt have certainly forgiven themselves for the war, it’s not clear that their supporters have done anything more than bury their war votes under a dirty blanket of rationalizations. In a straight primary vote, well, these tensions might never be teased out. But the caucuses involve speechifying and consensus building. The web has shown that the candidate’s ability to sell himself matters less than his supporters ability to sell the candidate. Dean supporters are very persuasive and will not allow all those war rationalizations to stand. When confronted directly with an accusatory speech from a fellow and Dean-trained Midwesterner on who was there for you when it counted, will the Kerry/Edwards surge meet its match?

     We’re letting Kerry and Edwards speak for themselves in the audio files here. So make your own guess as to what is suddenly working for them. Kerry’s act as Lazarus is more than a little spooky, and all the more impressive. The Boston Irish guys are getting credit for the new Kerry marching discipline–traveling guns like Mike Whouley, the new campaign boss, and faithful pros like Congressman Ed Markey who came out to speak for Kerry in Dubuque yesterday and stayed to work the phones along with a flock of Kerry-supporter Catholic nuns at his side. Kerry himself, bounding out of the shadows behind Al Sharpton in the December national polls, bellows and booms again like a real contendor. He closed strong last night for a crowd of 500 or more at the Capital Mall in Iowa City. “If George Bush wants national security to be the key issue of this campaign,” he shouted, “I look forward to reminding him: ‘Mr. President, I know something about aircraft carriers for real. And if you want national security to be the central issue in this campaign, I’ve got three words for you that I know you understand: Bring it on.'”

You can listen to John Kerry’s speech at Iowa City here: Part One Part Two Part Three

     John Edwards acts and talks and walks like a rock star crossed with a home spun country lawyer. Techno music booms as he enters Dubuque’s airplane hangar of a civil center, and then, he works the crowd like a jury, inhumanly making eye contact with 500 people simultaneously. He sprays good feelings and hope: “This country was not built by cynics. It was built by optimists.” Then comes a laundry list of how America can do better: ending special interests, improving health care, allowing everyone to go to college, overcoming racial problems, attacking poverty. He ties each policy to a strand in his life: someone close to him who was ill, his difficult journey to pay for college, his rejection of special interest money, the racism he saw as a youngster, the poverty he knows back home. It feels like a courtroom performance, and he wins his case–and a lot of applause from both the conservative farmers and the lefties waiting to hear Dennis Kucinich.

You can listen to John Edwards’s speech at the Dubuque County Democrats here: Part One Part Two Part Three

Remember this about the Iowa caucuses: most Iowans won’t go, and many we meet on the street are are happy to tell you they have no interest, no confidence, no loyalty to party or this process. Only about 125,000 – 150,000 people – 4% of the state – will turn out on Monday. According to Chet Culver, Secretary of State of Iowa, this is in a state where 95% of potential voters are registered (up from 89% four years ago); 100,000 voters have been brought onto the rolls over the past twelve months alone.

     There will be other problems in deciding just what Iowa means. The first news reports on Monday evening will not be caucus results, but rather network entrance polls. The late night results could look quite different. And then there’s the matter of exceeding expectations, the Iowa way to win without winning. And beyond that: the matter of “bounces” into New Hampshire.

    Are these real problems? Depends who you ask. Iowa clearly relishes being first in the nation, but some of the folk we’ve talked to do not like the caucus format, preferring a primary because it’s more representative. One beautiful girl, torn between Edwards and Kerry, thoughtfully listed the merits of each, and then mentioned there was no way she could make it to the caucuses. She’s working on Monday.

The Soul of a New Machine

     Listen here: Zephyr Teachout may dazzle you (as she does me) with her electrical charge, her theatrical pauses, her whimsical word play–her attempts to invent a better word than “citizen,” for example, or to unpeel the phrase “common purpose.” She may well impress you as the chief of Howard Dean’s Internet operations, the queen of the Dean geek corps and all those improvised Web networking tools known as Dean Space. She may charm you with her own tale of a wiry, wired 32-year old farm girl from Norwich, Vermont who went to Yale as a track star, then Duke Law School, and had 32 jobs before she arrived at Dean headquarters. What transfixes me more is Zephyr Teachout’s resolute, reckless idealism about Dean World. She is a tough-minded zealot about politics as both a slugfest over power and an experiment in expressive, decentralized democracy. Above all she seems committed to the vast, still mysterious organism that keeps spinning still wider, sturdier gossamer wings to keep Dean aloft. She has become my embodiment of a main premise of the Dean campaign–the premise that will see him through merciless media and rival bombardment in Iowa this weekend or else will take a terrible hit with him. It’s the bet that self-willed citizens and their self-scipted “common purpose” are the real force and meaning of the campaign–more vital, more interesting even than the candidate or his latest pronouncement. A second premise comes with all this: that the Dean believers’ can stick to the narrative line about their own uprising, when Newsweek’s cover (“Doubts About Dean”) and a legion of scolds would make a defining issue of his “arrogance” or “anger,” or his wisecracks years ago on Canadian TV. Through our last conversation in Burlington, en route to Iowa, Ms. Teachout was ignoring the umpteenth TV debate, and as usual keeping her mood detatched from the news coverage. She was preoccupied with directing the flow of 35,000 hand-written snail-mail notes to rural Iowans from Dean supporters elsewhere, and then overseeing the descent of 3500 volunteers on Iowa in the last weekend of canvassing before the Monday caucuses. She is so hooked on the line that the real campaign is “out there” that she left Burlington for the last 2 months of 2003 to criss-cross the country by Airstream and car. It was a trip of 16,000 miles, “exhausting, painful, hard.” She wanted to call it “a study of the American family,” because she got to stay in 50 strangers’ homes. The heroes in her rambling saga tend to be impulsive eccentrics, like the “Fire Bush” lady who stands with a placard on a Memphis steet corner, or the lady in Lubbock leading Texans for Dean to Iowa. Zephyr Teachout loves people who refuse to be called mere “voters.” She keeps count of the Dean organizers who are deciding now to run for local office, even perhaps for Congress. She exults in people who are ready to be jolted and bruised in the exercise of power. She wishes we all knew the power and pleasure that comes with self-expression. She observes (as I do) that by far the best, broadest, most boisterous account of the Dean campaign is the lively inside job being compiled in the multidinous Open Thread messages on Dean’s Blog for America. She says that Deaniacs who disagree on many things all nod in unison at the line that “something’s askew in the media.” She bolsters my thought that Big Media, if it does not crush Dean entirely, will be held to account for fear and loathing in their coverage of him. On the eve of crunch time in Iowa finally, the Zephyr Teachout version of the country and the campaign is here.