- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

In the days following the capture of Saddam Hussein by U.S. forces in Iraq, it has become popular for some in the media, and most of the other Democratic presidential candidates, to suggest that Howard Dean’s inevitable path to his party’s nomination has been blocked.

These are exercises in wishful thinking by a media class which neither likes Mr. Dean nor wants the primary battle season to be over any sooner than it has begun, and by desperate political rivals who have been outmaneuvered by the former Vermont governor since the campaign season began.

Mr. Dean, through a populist rhetoric calculated to appeal to the left base of his party, and by innovative use of the Internet, has become the frontrunner to win his party’s nomination in Boston. The truth is that it is a weak Democratic field in which the most original candidate has emerged from the pack.

The Democrats’ most vexing problem in 2004 is revealed by the following paradox: On the one hand, a great many Democrats, especially activists, are furious at President Bush, initially from the controversy surrounding his election in 2000, and later fueled by his successful enactment of much of his conservative agenda.

On the other hand, the candidate who has played to this anger the most, Mr. Dean, may not be their strongest opponent to the incumbent president. His journey back to the political center in time for the November election, now underway, has been made problematic by his own populist rhetoric that helped him become the frontrunner.

Mr. Dean, who had for the most part a moderate and even fiscally conservative record in Vermont, has been high profile in his class-warfare, anti-globalist, anti-Iraq war speeches. Now that the economy is turning upward, and postwar Iraq may be turning positive, his appeal to independent voters and centrist Democrats is diminished. His inability to escape this is better illustrated by the recent exchange between Mr. Dean and a network program host, in which candidate Dean vehemently denies he is pro-NAFTA. “There you go again….I have never been strongly pro-NAFTA!” The network program then shows a videotape of Mr. Dean speaking at a campaign rally, shouting “I was strongly pro-NAFTA!” This and similar instances would be surely be presented again and again by the Bush campaign in the autumn.

Some might reasonably argue, therefore, that Mr. Dean will not be nominated because Democrats will figure out he can’t win in November. But here is where the paradox strikes a stake into the heart of the Democrats’ aspirations. They have bonded with Mr. Dean because only he has spoken successfully to their anger and to their class-warfare romanticism. Only he was against the war in Iraq from the outset, and Al Gore’s endorsement of Mr. Dean gave this a powerful imprimatur. Attacks on Mr. Dean by his rivals only make his supporters more convinced than ever that he is the only Democrat worth supporting. The passionate hatred Democrats feel toward President Bush trumps common sense. The only Democrat who had a real chance to thwart Mr. Dean, Wesley Clark, has turned out to be a political dud. His most appealing qualification to many Democrats — his being a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — is self-cancelling. As Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, said, “There is fatuity in nominating a general and a warrior in time of war on a peace platform.”Thus, the “Chicago surrender” of Gen. George McClellan, who received the 1864 Democratic nomination in the Windy City after he condemned President Lincoln for his war policy, might well become the Boston surrender if Mr. Clark were nominated in 2004 after he has campaigned by attacking Mr. Bush’s Iraq war policy. I suggest that most Americans are in no mood to surrender.

@$: Finally, Mr. Dean has got what distinguishes successful presidential nominees from unsuccessful ones — luck and a story. The recent discovery of his late brother’s remains in Asia illustrates this. Mr. Dean has not much discussed his personal life, nor the sorrow of his missing brother, during the campaign. The story was thrustinto public view when his missing brother’s body was found after almost 30 years.

For Mr. Dean, without doubt, this was an exceedingly private anguish, but the publicity of the story revealed him in a human and sympathetic way at a moment when this was most needed by his campaign. Furthermore, in spite of his patrician upbringing, Mr. Dean’s background as a physician who left behind his youth of privilege to devote himself to public service in medicine as well as in politics is an appealing American saga to tell. So, too, was Bill Clinton’s (a Rhodes scholar from Hope), Michael Dukakis’s(son ofGreekimmigrants)and Jimmy Carter’s (peanut farmer from Georgia).

Much has yet to happen in the 2004 campaign, and nothing is written yet in New Hampshire granite or Iowa corn. But thanks to the angry Democratic base, the capture of Saddam Hussein by itself is not going to alter Howard Dean’s course to his political destiny.

Barry Casselman has reported on and analyzed national politics since 1976.

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