Still, I can see how someone might take these spots as unusually negative, especially for a stage of the campaign that's still more about definition than contrast. The reason is not what Dean says; it's how he says it. On video, he always seems to be damming up a torrent of anger. When Joe Lieberman takes the offensive, he sighs and smiles, sticking the shiv in as he pronounces himself sadly disappointed in his opponents. In these ads, Dean never smiles (though he intermittently seems to be trying). Rather, he struggles to calibrate his boundless exasperation.
Will a sour demeanor doom Dean's candidacy? The accepted view, at least since Ronald Reagan's 1984 * "Morning in America" commercials, is that Americans respond to dewy optimism, not negativity. While there's an insight here, the futility of pessimism may be one of those lessons that politicians have over-learned. The essence of Dean's appeal to frustrated Democrats is his harshness in criticizing Bush, while the pillars of the party have provided only token opposition. Even people who don't agree with Dean on various issues respond to how pissed off he is. His severity might ultimately limit his appeal. But without it, I'm not sure he'd appeal in the first place.
And speaking of winning characters who flash with anger, am I crazy to think Dean is consciously playing up the Josiah Bartlet shtick? Where many ads gloss over geographic distinctiveness, Joe Trippi and team everywhere emphasize Dean's flinty New England flavors. The backdrop is an early autumn day in Vermont. Dean stands in front of yellowing sugar maples, dressed in a muted-tone sweater. Cyclists and hikers crisscross the green, rolling hillside. "I want to reclaim our rights and our liberties that were taken away in the name of patriotism," he says, striking an Ethan Allen note.
Fresh-pressed cider, anyone?