Politics & Policy

Pretty Please

Howard Dean, the DNC's leading man.

Maybe we didn’t ask nicely enough the first time around. When Howard Dean seemed to be hurtling toward the Democratic nomination in late 2003, we joined the bandwagon, running a cover emblazoned, “Please, Nominate This Man.” We were being facetious, of course. We thought Dean would be a wondrous Democratic nominee for the Republican party, since he probably wouldn’t have forced President Bush to break a sweat. Hence, our mock pleading. But all things considered, it is better that the Democratic party not slip entirely the surly bonds of reality, so we were happy that Democratic primary voters were sensible enough to reject the fevered left-wingery of Howard Dean.

But now he’s back. And this time it isn’t the supposedly unsophisticated Democratic caucus and primary voters who are swooning for Dean, but the party’s insiders, the voting members of the Democratic National Committee. Freud could get an entire monograph on his theory of the “death drive” out of observing contemporary Democrats. The party is displaying an unquenchable thirst for irrelevance. Several theories have been advanced in the wake of Bush’s reelection for the Democrats’ troubles: a lack of seriousness on national security; an out-of-touch liberalism on social issues; an inability to sell its message in terms that connect with “red state” voters. The DNC is about to reject all these theories in favor of one of its own–all that ails the Democratic can be fixed by more of the same, only more so.

In his own northeastern liberalism, Dean makes John Kerry look like a figure out of the painting American Gothic. Dean’s defenders say he governed as a moderate in Vermont. But moderation in Vermont is extremism in much of the rest of the country. And the fact is that Dean did not run as a moderate in the Democratic primaries, when he cemented his national image as a ranter against the Iraq war and tax cuts, even before his infamous Iowa scream. He was so far left on social issues that he pledged–riffing off of Bill Clinton’s status as “the first black president”–to be the first gay president. DNC members counting on Dean to keep this all under wraps as he becomes a team player as chairman don’t know their man.

“Say what you will about

them, at least the Clintons have

always been willing to

accommodate American realities

enough to win elections.”

But didn’t he pioneer Internet fundraising? The post-mortems of his campaign in the media make it clear that the Internet activity grew up under Dean almost by accident, as a few web-savvy aides took advantage of the brushfire while the governor remained blissfully ignorant of the Internet and all its doings. Fundraising and organizing on the web are now irrevocably part of American politics. Kerry raised millions on the web. It doesn’t take the supposed special expertise of Howard Dean.

How about organizational skills? Dean ran a laughably disorganized campaign beset by poisonous infighting of epic proportions. He flamed out in embarrassing fashion while running through $52 million in ways no one yet quite understands.

The appeal of Howard Dean is simply this: He has stood up at regional meetings of (generally left-wing) DNC members and delivered versions of his usual rants, prompting members to applaud and feel good about themselves as they bask in the old-time religion. That’s it. As Dean said at the New York meeting, “I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for,” in a typically crude statement. The spectacle of his candidacy steaming toward the chairmanship makes a mockery of New Republic editor Peter Beinart’s call for a return to the moral seriousness and maturity of the Democrats circa 1948. The DNC is looking as though it can’t even muster the moral seriousness and maturity of the Democrats circa January 2004, when they relegated Dean to a devastating third-place finish in Iowa. The party’s congressional leadership has half-heartedly tried to create an alternative to Dean, putting forward former congressman Tim Roemer, but he was doomed by his undue regard for unborn life and his past expressed willingness to modernize Social Security.

Of course, the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee will have a large say in the future of the party. Hillary Clinton seems to realize adjustments are necessary, moving center-ward on immigration and abortion. Say what you will about them, at least the Clintons have always been willing to accommodate American realities enough to win elections. But, in the meantime, there will be Dean, who would represent another step by the Democrats into the quicksand of outdated orthodoxies and self-pleasing emotionalism. We would prefer–since it would be better for the country–that the Democrats be the kind of responsible party they were during much of the Cold War, at least prior to Vietnam. But conservative Republicans will reap all sorts of benefits from a Democratic party resolute about wandering further into the wilderness. For that reason, contemplating the possibility of Dean as DNC chairman makes part of us want to beg, “Please, please, please, select this man.”


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