HOWARD DEAN had a roller coaster week. Last Tuesday Al Gore crowned him with a surprise endorsement. Five days later US forces surprised Saddam Hussein. Once again, Bush trumped Gore.
On Monday, TV spots in New Hampshire -- apparently sponsored by associates of Dick Gephardt and John Kerry -- began warning that Americans live in "a new, dangerous world" in which "Howard Dean cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy." Dean, unrepentant, declared in his latest foreign policy address that "the capture of Saddam has not made America safer." He just might be right.
But three other Democratic candidates denounced Dean. And the conservative National Review's current cover shows Dean in full cry, with the headline, "Please nominate this man." Dean remains the odds-on Democratic nominee. But can he win in November?
Dean has already achieved something revolutionary. Grasping the potential of the Internet as a tool of mobilization and money-raising, the Dean campaign has been self-confident enough to let its supporters organize their own Web activities and meet-ups even as the candidate and his campaign manager, Joe Trippi, are clearly in charge.
This trust in volunteers combined with Dean's principled opposition to Bush's foreign adventure, have energized an ever growing base willing to walk over hot coals for Dean (and open their wallets along the way). This grass-roots energy is something the party has desperately needed since George McGovern.
And that's the conundrum. Dean could certainly attract the enthusiastic votes of, say, 45 percent of the electorate -- which would guarantee radical Republican dominance for a generation.
But maybe Dean isn't another McGovern. Dean generates excitement not just because he empowered volunteers or because he was a consistent critic of the Iraq war but because he is tough. Consider: Recent losing Democratic nominees were all over the map ideologically. They ranged from center-right (Carter '80) to moderate liberal (Gore '00) to liberal (Mondale '84; Dukakis '88) to left-liberal (McGovern '72.)
But all these losers had one thing in common: gentleness. Despite intermittently brave rhetoric, not one of them came across as a fighter. Dean, of course, does, as Harry Truman and John Kennedy did. Much of this year's Democratic field comes across as wimpy in their cautious criticisms of Republican radicalism.
There are two huge reasons why the Democratic nominee in 2004 needs to be tough. First, George Bush is a tough guy, and the nominee needs to be tough against Bush. Second, the world is a tougher place since Sept. 11, and the president of the United States had better be tough enough to protect us.
Tough, mind you, not reckless. This is Dean's whole point. Amid all the cheap flag waving, Thanksgiving turkey-ops, jump-suit carrier stunts, and now a show trial, there is a sober case that Bush's policies are actually making America and the world a less safe place. But is Dean, as opposed to, say, Wesley Clark, a credible bearer of that message?
Beyond rallying the Democratic base, Dean would have to do two other things. He'd have to broaden that base dramatically by motivating nonvoters at a scale not seen since 1936 (Franklin Roosevelt) or 1828 (Andrew Jackson). He'd also have to appeal to swing voters -- the soccer moms and economically vulnerable blue-collar workers who have not totally bought George Bush. Remember, despite his attacks on Bush's foreign policy, Dean is fundamentally a moderate. He was a fiscally conservative, rather centrist governor. But there is no good data yet on how he would play with swing voters.
Electoral dynamics have also changed since 1972. Unlike McGovern, Dean starts with a "blue state" base of about 200 electoral votes that are almost impossible for a Democrat to lose.
Invoking 1972 is not entirely a bad idea. In that year, with Watergate, Nixon attempted to steal the Constitution, and there are instructive parallels with Bush. In 1972, the Democratic Party pros deserted the nominee, not vice versa.
This time a Los Angeles Times poll shows a large plurality of Democratic National Committee members favoring Dean. But there are also disconcerting similarities with 1972: an incumbent with nearly unlimited funds and no scruples; a prospective Democratic nominee who produces schisms in his own party; and a dubious war but not one so unpopular that it totally discredits the incumbent.
No matter how well he does, his lack of foreign policy experience will dog Dean. Ideally the Democratic nominee would combine Dean's excitement and nerve with the military credibility of Wesley Clark. Alas, there's no such centaur. A Dean-Clark ticket would help only a little because it would also underscore the contrast between the running mates.
Dean has already reinvented the politics of the Democratic primary. Those not relishing decades of Republican dominance must hope he can also rewrite the rules of the election in November.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.
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