- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

Whilepunditsdebate whether he is too “left-wing” to win the presidency, Howard Dean has systematically edged out the competition to his left. Dennis Kucinich’s viability was predicated on grabbing the “I’m angry at Bush” slot. Mr. Dean has cut him off at the pass. Al Sharpton has not succeeded in establishing a broad progressive appeal, and remains the black candidate for whom black voters will have to decide whether to cast a symbolic vote — though he hasn’t said what the symbolism is. Carol Moseley Braun has not proven herself to be a serious contender.

Having cornered the market on the insurgent left vote, Mr. Dean now moves on to challenge the official liberal, John Kerry, and the official labor candidate, Richard Gephardt. All the while, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council is dogging him with the spectre of the McGovern debacle of 1972.

Mr. Dean, wisely enough, is not haunted by 1972. While “electable wing” Democrats like to invoke the famous George McGovern meltdown, in which the anti-Vietnam War candidate carried only one state against Republican President Richard Nixon, the parallels are dubious.

The 1972 election is best understood as the last gasp of the 1960s, in which Democratic Party regulars — furious about the McGovernites takeover of the nominating process — gave their own presidential nominee a drubbing. Ironically, though, George McGovern was neither a leftist nor a standard-bearer for the party’s left wing. He was the guy who got to rewrite party rules off the 1968 Democratic Convention debacle and became the beneficiary of that internal restructuring.

The Democratic Party left hit its high-water mark in the Dump Johnson movement in 1968, but was actually on the decline by the time Mr. McGovern’s rules changes allowed him to capture the nomination. If Mr. Dean were to win the Democratic nomination in 2004, it would not be as a result of controlling the party’s electoral apparatus, but because a left insurgency managed to explode the grip of the centrist New Democrats.

Now that he has marginalized the other left Democratic presidential contenders, the pressure is on to broaden his appeal to other — some say more moderate — voters. The danger for Mr. Dean is that he not sacrifice his authenticity in the process.

Mr. Dean seems acutely aware of this danger. In his efforts, for example, to reach out to independent voters (who themselves occupy multiple points along the ideological spectrum) Mr. Dean has participated in a new national screening process by independent voters called “Choosing an Independent President 2004.” This group — based in 47 states — asked how he’ll shape his campaign to appeal to the growing independent constituency (now 35 percent of all voters). Mr. Dean responded, “I won’t shape my campaign one bit — I’ll run the same campaign I’ve been running from the beginning.” In response to another question, Mr. Dean stated “I believe that both parties are guilty of not giving people a reason to vote.”

Independent voters could figure prominently in the primary season, as 22 states hold open primaries where independents may vote. Critical early states like New Hampshire and South Carolina are among them. Mr. Dean’s participation in the “Choosing” process and his recent endorsement by former independent Gov. Lowell Weicker of Connecticut create bridges to those voters. But Mr. Dean must also have an authentic cause with which to inspire them.

Some have wondered whether the ballooning deficit — $455 billion — could ignite another voter rebellion on the scale of the one Ross Perot led in 1992. Mr. Dean is a fiscal conservative with his Vermont record to prove it. But the heart of the Perot phenomenon was not fiscal conservatism, it was anti-establishment populism. Can Mr. Dean grab that niche? John McCain, did but was only able to take it to second place in the Republican primary. The question is whether Mr. Dean becomes the first post-September 11 Democrat ready to go all the way. All the way, in this case, would mean a no-holds barred anti-corruption campaign to the independent voter.

Ultimately, the question is not whether Mr. Dean is moderate enough — it’s really whether he’s radical enough to challenge the categories of American politics. To do so, he must construct an electoral coalition that goes beyond the left and beyond narrow Democratic partisanship, even as he pursues the Democratic nomination.

George W. Bush won the election as a compassionate conservative. Perhaps Mr. Dean could win it as a moderate radical. But if Mr. Dean remains anti-Bush because he is a Democrat, he will not succeed. If he becomes identified as anti-Bush because he is an anti-establishment American, that could be a different story.

Jacqueline Salit is the political director of the Committee for a Unified Independent Party. She ran Mike Bloomberg’s campaign to independent voters in New York City’s 2001 mayoral contest.

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