Life is so simple when you are at the back of the pack. No one picks on you, and no one picks up on your gaffes. When the Democratic presidential race started to take shape a year ago, few bothered to attack the quirky doctor who was an ex-Governor of a small New England state. He barked and blustered, but the Democratic establishment and the media saw in him little more than entertainment value. He stood on the wrong side of a popular President's war and outside the party establishment, within which the winner would be anointed in due course.
It is more complicated at the top of the heap. Now former Vermont Governor Howard Dean leads the eight other Democrats by every measure that matters (at least until people start voting): in polls, money, organization and enthusiasm. As the Democratic front runner, with only two weeks to go before the presidential race begins in Iowa, Dean is being pummeled from every angle, and his every assertion is being examined under a microscope. In the past few weeks, he has declared that the U.S. is no safer with Saddam Hussein in captivity, mused about an "interesting theory" that President George W. Bush was tipped off about 9/11 by the Saudis, whined that Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe should stop the other candidates from assailing him and hinted that if he does not win the nomination, his legions of followers might not show up to vote in November. A lot of people have been wondering, What is he thinking?
So we asked him. Dr. Dean does not get many opportunities to make a diagnosis these days. Maybe that is why he responded so readily last week to an invitation to deliver one for himself. There was no examination table in the cramped six-seater jet that was taking him home to Vermont for a New Year's break. Instead Dean stretched his stocking feet into the seat across from him for a two-hour discussion of who he is and how he thinks, dissecting the instincts that have made him the one to beat for the Democratic nomination and the reasons those instincts might make it harder for him to make it all the way to the White House.
If you want to understand how Howard Dean thinks, he says, it helps to look at the way he and his doctor-wife Judith Steinberg treated patients in their family practice back in Vermont. "She's very methodical. She'll exhaust all the possibilities until she gets to the one that's the most likely," he explains. "I'm intuitive, and I jump steps ahead. Part of what gets me in trouble on the stump is that I shorthand things. I know what I'm thinking, but I don't say every word of it. I was that way as a doctor. I eliminate possibilities unconsciously, before they get to my consciousness. It's also part of my political judgment. I often know I want to do things before I know why, although the thinking goes on all the time. The way I think is, if you give me information, I tuck it back somewhere and work on it and work on it and work on it without being aware of it. All of a sudden, 10 months later, something will pop out, based on a whole series of things that I've learned in the last 10 months. And finally, all of a sudden, it falls into place."