It’s the message, stupid.

At all of five feet and eight inches, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean is hardly the most imposing figure on a stage. His state’s largest corporations find Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and Birkenstock Sandals at the top. His senior staff is chock full of aged hippie McGovernites and Bradley veterans who have yet to actually manage successful presidential campaigns, and his network of major national contacts and endorsements can be counted on one hand (Dean is notoriously uncharismatic). So why is the good Doctor on pace to break all Democratic fund-raising records, organizing crowds of unprecedented sizes, toppling talented veteran politicos and turning heads throughout the Party? His campaign message is enabling this diminutive man from this diminutive state to stand tall among his peers, confound his critics and single-handedly re-energize the Democratic disenchanted.

Politics requires a mastery of language. Without an effective and communicable message, the cleanest money, tightest network and smartest staff are ineffective at best (read: Kerry) and anemic to the health of a campaign at worst (read: Gephardt). Message clarifies. Message sets a tone, shapes a candidate, frames a story and most importantly, wins a voter. In the crowded field of nine fumblin’ bumblin’ Democratic presidential hopefuls with little policy positioning room, it is message that will win over the rank and file, energize the Democratic base and seduce the Anxious Middle back into the Party.

Howard Dean’s belligerently partisan message has provided the primary impetus for his insurgency to the top of the Democratic six-pack. While other Presidential hopefuls were spending early months shopping around for the best staff (Kerry), scrambling for easy money (Edwards) or squeezing labor for old favors (Gephardt), Dean was meditating upon an ambitious and unambiguous message that would deliver the red meat the base was growling for. And while most Democrats were wildly flapping their flags and grooving to the jingoistic fever before the war, Dean was boldly staking out an anti-war position that included blistering anti-Bush rhetoric in the face of unprecedented presidential approval ratings. Although Dean’s hyperbolic message is not without its risks, it has succeeded in inoculating him from the unpredictable roller coaster news-cycles that have made Democrats so vulnerable in past months. Remaining top-tier candidates have been attempting awkward tight rope balancing acts; they defend their pro-war votes, anxious to highlight their hawkish muscularity in the general election, while attempting to mollify the peace-nik voters of Iowa and New Hampshire in order to survive the primary. (Kerry now says he voted just to “threaten” war with Iraq, and Dean is still the only candidate to actually mention Iraq in his air game). Dean’s unequivocal anti-war position only magnifies the confusing caveats that riddle the remaining (top-tier) candidates’ positions. Their wishy-washy approach to politics in the primary has not caught voters unaware, who have punished them in critical early states. This is simply not the election cycle to be ignoring the base so early.

While Dean’s message has been stunningly effective early in the primary, the very strengths of his primary campaign’s themes can destroy the campaign without a general election message tune-up. The challenges that now unfold before Dean lie within his own camp. Although the media’s frame of Dean as the race’s outlandish liberal has yet to be challenged, Governor Dean is a dyed-in-the-wool New Democrat. Dean must continue to energize the left flank that has coalesced behind his anti-war position as he begins to present himself to independent voters in his true colors: those of an obstinate budget hawk, gun control opponent, free trader and death penalty proponent. (What happens when his leftist base realizes Kucinich is actually the guy Dean is supposed to be?) Just as ideological moderation is inevitable for any front-runner in our system, so is the resulting detachment from their base; losing their energy and enthusiasm late in the primary or early in the general election could encourage another ugly appearance from Ralph Nader. Bill Clinton avoided this problem with a brilliant message and a laser-like focus on issues that transcended ideological lines; as with all Presidential wannabees, Dean must learn to learn from the best.

Dean’s second and more pressing challenge is to develop an optimistic alternative to the Bush White House. Dean has capitalized on (and is close to exhausting) the anti-Bush fervor within the Democratic ranks, but risks flaming out if he is unable to articulate a viable alternative. Presidential campaigns feed upon an optimistic outlook on the future; anti-establishment anger can spark a campaign, but it cannot carry a candidate through to November. Message, message, message. Although the Left feeds off the angry rhetorical sound bites Dean feeds them, independents are as nervous over the lack of alternative Democratic solutions as they are discouraged by Dubya’s performance in the White House.

Dean has lit a fire under Democrats and may succeed in positively refocusing the Party, but Bush is still the 800-pound gorilla of American politics. Although Junior’s poll numbers have returned to mortal levels, he is still set to flex the largest campaign budget in the history of American politics while the Republican Party prepares to squeeze every last drop of political opportunism out of 9/11. (Bush will accept the Republican Party’s re-nomination in New York City, but not before attending another mega-fundraiser.) Republicans are typically brilliant with message and the perceptual frame that follows, and are fronting a candidate that is frankly too simple-minded to ever actually stray off message. As a result, Democrats must identify their front-runner quickly (McAuliffe has front-loaded the primaries to facilitate this process) and minimize party infighting in order to present a unified front to a hyper-organized and excited Republican Party. If Dean remains the Democratic front-runner, he must adjust his message in order to transcend the Party’s ideological differences and unite what will be a fractious Party licking its wounds from a bruising primary.

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