There has been a spate of revisionism to the effect that Howard Dean would really be a strong general-election candidate against President Bush. Republicans and conservatives, on this view, are indulging in wishful thinking when they say that Dean would be a sure loser. (Anyone who doubts this sentiment is prevalent on the Right should take a look at the cover of the latest National Review, which puts the words “Please Nominate this Man” under Dean’s picture.) The best expression of this revisionism comes from Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal.
I’m a pre-revisionist, myself (a previsionist?): I doubt Dean will be all that strong a candidate. Rauch’s article didn’t change my mind.
Rauch writes that Dean is, in some respects, to the right of the Bill Clinton of 1992. His position on the Iraq war was, and is, more nuanced and less pacifist than many people realize, and that position might look pretty good if the public has soured on the war by next fall. I would add that one can never totally count out a candidate who has the backing of one of the two major national parties.
But Dean’s alleged moderation on the war may not turn out to matter all that much in the fall (assuming he gets the nomination, which I do not yet assume). In the mind of the public, I suspect, one of the candidates will be considered in favor of the war and one of them against it. The nuances will be lost, and I expect that the public will continue to side with what looks like the tougher posture. The campaign debate will in any case concern what to do in Iraq now as much as it does what should have been done before. Dean and Bush will both have to decide between stay-the-course and cut-and-run options. The most likely scenario has Dean inclining toward the latter and Bush the former, and, again, I think that the public will be on that side too.
The war will not, of course, be the only issue. What of the claim that Dean is to the 1992 Clinton’s right? There’s something to it, if hostility to deficits is considered “right.” It is not a politically powerful form of rightwardness. Hostility to deficits is something that people say they agree with but rarely vote for. That’s especially true if, as in Dean’s case, the hostility to deficits takes the form of supporting tax increases, and even more so if the tax increases will affect everyone (even if they are more severe for the most affluent). Dean’s allegedly centrist position on guns is not much more of a draw. He takes the same position on federal gun-control legislation as other national Democrats, while placing more rhetorical stress than they do on the fact that states would remain free to make their own decisions about whether to go further in regulating guns. Democrats have tried to emphasize their moderation on guns before without altering the basic political equation: Opponents of regulations are more likely to vote on the issue than supporters, and rural voters regard such regulations as the thin end of the wedge of an attack on their way of life.
Dean’s support of sweeping re-regulation of the economy and his position on trade, meanwhile, are to the left of Clinton 1992. The gay-marriage issue, assuming it is an issue, may cut more deeply into Dean than it would to other Democratic candidates, given his history with it.
Dean’s proposal to repeal the Patriot Act has not gotten much attention as a potential Dean vulnerability, partly because there are so many other vulnerabilities and partly because opponents of the act, both on the left and on the right, have been more vocal than supporters. But it could be a serious problem. Bush will be able to list various law-enforcement powers that Dean wants to eliminate, and that sound like common-sense measures to the public. Opposition to Patriot creates another problem for Dean, too. His response to 9/11 has been to oppose most of Bush’s international war on terrorism and to oppose his domestic war on terrorism, too. He’s against racial profiling, presumably against tighter border controls, and sort-of committed to defending Israel. So what’s his anti-terrorism policy? It’s not clear what he would have done besides fighting the war on Afghanistan and continuing to hunt down al Qaeda members. It should be easy for the Republicans to characterize this as a weak response to 9/11, because it is one.
Will Dean’s personality wear well? Some people have said that he projects too much anger for the general electorate; arrogance may be the deeper problem. Then there are all the great clips Republicans will have from the primaries. They’ll have one of Joe Lieberman, for example, saying that “the Bush recession” would be succeeded by “the Dean depression” if the governor were elected. Let’s also not forget that Dean is from a part of the country that has not produced successful Democratic presidential candidates during the last 40 years.
All of that said, I can see two reasons a rational Democrat might want to nominate Dean. The first is that he really does express the views, priorities, and sentiments of his party better than the other candidates. The second is that the other candidates might be even weaker than him. If one of the other guys gets the nomination, a Ralph Nader candidacy might have more steam. The Boston convention could look a bit like Chicago in 1968. Dean may not have a good shot at Bush, in other words, but he may be the Democrats’ best shot.