- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2005

When Talleyrand attained room temperature in 1838, his clever adversary Prince Metternich quipped “What did he mean by that?” Based on that mordant line alone surely we could find a place for the old Austrian cynic here in Washington today if he were alive. Here everyone is thought to be up to something.

Rep. John Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, has just written Pennsylvania’s seven members of the Democratic National Committee recommending they support former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean as chairman of the Democratic Party. Now what does he mean by that?

Mr. Murtha is relatively conservative. He was an early supporter of the invasion of Iraq. In running for the Democratic presidential nomination, Mr. Dean was the pre-eminent antiwar candidate. He had cornered the left liberal elements in his party and seemed poised to turn the party away from the moderately liberal politics of Bill Clinton and toward the left’s ideological rigorists.

In fact, observers speculate Mr. Dean’s left turn is what cooked his goose with those Democrats intent on maintaining the party’s 1990s posture, namely the Clintons. Has Mr. Murtha turned to the left?

“I am not with him [Howard Dean] on all the issues, but he understands the party’s problems,” Mr. Murtha told the Hill, a newspaper specializing in congressional coverage, “what we need to do and how to get there.” Mr. Murtha went on to emphasize Mr. Dean “has executive experience.” “What does Mr. Murtha’s endorsement mean?

It means Mr. Murtha is aware of what those of us who have known Mr. Dean knew throughout his run for the presidential nomination. He is no radical. Whereas earlier champions of the left in the Democratic Party were left-wing ideologues, for instance, Sen. George McGovern, Mr. Dean is simply a party-line Democrat who left the practice of medicine because he relishes the great game of politics.

To be sure, Mr. Dean has, since his youth as a counterculture fellow-traveler in the 1960s, picked up some of the sentimental memorabilia of that era. But his record in Vermont was that of a practical politician who very much wanted to be re-elected. He has no grand ideological scheme for America, just re-election in mind.

Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s I appeared with him regularly on “The Editors,” a PBS show taped in Montreal. Through all those shows he was a centrist. He was also an automaton of the Clinton party-line. Whatever the issue of the hour, whatever the Clinton scandal in need of defense, Mr. Dean was there. We taped on Saturday mornings, and it often occurred to me he had been sent the Clinton “talking points” the night before. He had them down pat. He elucidated them smoothly. He loves politics.

To the surprise of all of us on the panel, this rather ordinary governor from a rural state actually contemplated taking on Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000.

Now he plans to replace the Clintons’ hand-picked chairman of the DNC, Terry McAuliffe. The Democrats could do far worse. Mr. Dean is clever, hard-working and, after traveling the country in quest of his party’s nomination, he must know the party very well. What is more, though he has obviously won the hearts of the left-wing ideologues, he is not driven by their obsessions.

There is much hand-wringing amongst Democrats today. They wonder aloud if they should move to the left or to the far left. Not many are heard in public saying what is right, to wit, the party needs to stay near the center. My guess is Mr. Dean, the “antiwar candidate,” would keep the party close to the Clinton paradigm of the 1990s.

An interesting question is: Do the Clintons recognize this? Do they realize Mr. Dean was one of their most fluent defenders? Surely they do. Might that be why seasoned Democrats such as Mr. Murtha are lining up for Mr. Dean? The Clintons still control vast reaches of the party. The front-runner for 2008 is certainly Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Possibly they see Mr. Dean as a fit replacement for Mr. McAuliffe. That raises another question. Is Mr. Dean still yearning for a presidential nomination? Is he peeved about being rejected by the Clintons in 2004? What does he mean by going after the chairmanship of his party? Where is Prince Metternich when I need him?

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor in chief of the American Spectator, a contributing editor to the New York Sun, and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute. His most recent book is “Madame Hillary: The Dark Road to the White House.”

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