Let me repeat myself. You are an asshole.
What is an asshole? As I, and presumably Dennis Slater, use the term, it’s someone who has committed a wrong, but has managed to do more than that, adding a layer of gratuitous injury such that I’m well and truly pissed at him. (And it’s always a him. If a woman does this I use a different word.) An asshole isn’t just in the wrong; by going out of his way to inflict some harm that he could just as easily have avoided he’s managed to make it personal. It wasn’t an accident; he meant to do it. He acted with malice aforethought, exhibited mens rea, showed what a mean-spirited, vindictive S.O.B. he is. In short, an asshole.
I happen to think George W. Bush is an asshole. A lot of people think Howard Dean is an asshole. I’m pretty sure I’m right in my view of Bush, and I’m willing to stipulate that they’re right in their view of Dean.
Some people, like Kevin Drum of Calpundit, think this aspect of Dean’s personality will prevent him from winning the presidency. Drum posted about this (without actually calling Dean an asshole) in this item: Why I like Wes Clark. Drum wrote:
I like Dean’s energy, I like his passion, and I like the fact that he’s obviously not afraid to take on George Bush with gusto. But there’s a flip side to this, and I think you can see them both in his “guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks” remark. On the one hand, he was making a smart observation: these guys ought to vote for Democrats and we shouldn’t alienate them. But on the other hand, it was a really, really stupid way to make his point and he was too stubborn to back down from it until it had already done him a bunch of damage.
So while I don’t have any huge policy differences with him — although he’s sounding a little too sincere in his opposition to free trade these days — his character seems like a disaster waiting to happen. Too much of his appeal is built on anger, he often comes across as defensive and perhaps a little bitter to people who aren’t true believers in the first place, and I think he’d get flattened by Karl Rove’s $200 million war chest. I feel bad saying that, but it’s my best guess.
For myself, I think Dean’s Confederate flag remark hasn’t damaged him much, if at all. For one thing, he’s well on his way to steamrolling the Democratic primaries. (This New Republic article on Joe Trippi, Dean’s campaign manager, has some interesting coverage of that: Organization man.) I think Dean is already looking forward to the general election, and from that perspective, the Confederate flag comment makes a lot of sense. For every northern liberal it offends into leaving him (if any; what are they going to do, vote for Bush?) it probably makes a half dozen southerners sit up and take notice.
And what will they see? Well, maybe an asshole. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With the collective store of fear and anger this country has been carrying since 9/11, I think there are quite a few people who are ready to vote for an asshole for president.
In comparing Wesley Clark with Howard Dean on this point, I see an interesting paradox. Clark, of course, spent his professional career rising rapidly within an organization dedicated to killing people. For all that, though, he comes off (at least on TV) as a nice, non-threatening kind of guy. He’s smart and incisive, but he’s not particularly mean. He seems too rational for that. If you cut him off on the freeway he wouldn’t lean on the horn or flip you off. He might shake his head at you, but he’d also carefully reduce speed, put some distance between your car and his, and generally make sure he got the hell away from you.
Dean’s professional training was pretty much the opposite of Clark’s. As a physician, he took an oath to do no harm, which is about as far away from the Army’s raison d’etre as you can get. And yet, watching him talk, you get the sense that if you cut him off on the freeway, that feisty little doctor might very well give you a piece of his mind, or maybe even pull over and roll up his sleeves and settle it man-to-man, should you choose to escalate.
Now, from the perspective of a nice, thoughtful left-coaster like Kevin Drum, that looks decidedly non-presidential. But in the context of a culture where a piece of unapologetic knuckle-dragging like Kim du Toit’s The pussification of the Western male can provoke such a response that his Playskool web server has a nervous breakdown (note to Kim: real men use a real operating system on their servers), I think a scrappy Type-A doctor-turned-governor has a way better chance against Bush than a prissy schoolmarm of an ex-general, Karl Rove war chest or no.