EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial appears in the February 9, 2004, issue of National Review.
The Iowa caucuses have a bad rap, justifiably. They are dominated, as Howard Dean once said, by special interests that drag the Democratic party to the left. But this year the caucuses deserve their due. Presented a frontrunner with overwhelming financial resources and the endorsement of such important figures as Al Gore and Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrats not only looked elsewhere, but dealt him a severe blow. They apparently saw the poison in Howard Dean’s political persona (he has perfected the art of demagogic insincerity), while his passionate antagonism to the Iraq war had a limited constituency even within the Democratic party.
Republican partisans will have mixed feelings about the result. Dean is the least electable of the major Democratic candidates. Hence the tongue-in-cheek recent NR cover with Dean’s picture and the words, “Please Nominate This Man.” But given the importance of the Democratic party to our national life, it is better that it be as responsible as possible. For Dean to win the Democratic nomination–with his total rejection of a good part of the War on Terror, from the Patriot Act to the war in Iraq, and his advocacy of a tax increase for everyone who pays income taxes in America–would in itself represent a lurch to the left for our politics. That it now seems less likely is to be celebrated.
This is not to say that Dean is necessarily finished. He has a committed national base of supporters, the ability to raise money, and a fighting chance in New Hampshire. Even if he sinks, his influence will linger. The field has, to a significant extent, been Deanified. The most passionate supporters of the Iraq war in that field were Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman. One is now gone from the race, and the other barely in it.
John Kerry, the immediate beneficiary of Dean’s Iowa stumble, avoids some of his excesses. He rejects a full repeal of the Bush tax cuts–and made that an issue in Iowa–and is confused about the Iraq war rather than uniformly hostile. But Kerry has felt Dean’s tug. It is hard to tell from his rhetoric that he voted for the war. He also voted in favor of the Patriot Act, the No Child Left Behind Act, and NAFTA–and now attacks all three. If he is the nominee, he will wage a fight this year not just against President Bush, but against his own legislative record. (Edwards would have a similar problem.)
With four respectable, experienced Washington politicians to choose from, it always seemed odd that the Democrats would rush into the arms of the untested and wild Howard Dean and his similarly irresponsible competitor Wes Clark, who is basically Dean with medals. Both Kerry and the other Iowa winner, John Edwards, represent a Democratic party that is wrong about a lot of things, but has not fully surrendered to the vitriol and fatuousness of its Dean/moveon.org wing. Good for Iowa.