- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2003

If opinion polls are remotely reliable, then more than two out of three Americans believe that Saddam Hussein and Iraq were directly linked to al Qaeda and the September 11 attacks. At least the same percentage of Americans currently support President Bush in “staying the course” in rebuilding postwar Iraq. And, while Mr. Bush’s overall performanceratings have declined, he remains a popular president.

Public attitudes,of course, can change instantly. On Dec. 6,1941,and Sept. 10, 2001, very few Americans supported goingtowar against either Japanoral Qaeda.So, months or perhaps days from now, public attitudes toward the war and now the peace in Iraq can change radically. In part, it is this volatility that has catapulted former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean into the presidential limelight — at least for the moment.

The most interesting question beyond his opposition to the war is what has made Dean so visible and probably the current leader of the Democratic pack? His experience in national government is limited, not all that different from George W. Bush before he became president. Other contenders, especially in Congress, such as John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, Bob Graham and Dick Gephardt, are far more seasoned in politics and the ways of Washington.

Mr. Dean’s first in-depth television interviews were neither smooth nor impressive. He occasionally makes statements that suggest loose lips can indeed sink his own ship. His call for an “even handed” American approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while rationally and intellectually arguable, provoked a vigorous backlash from Israel’s supporters, many in his own party, who saw the governor preparing to abandon that ship, too. And despite Mr. Dean’s opposition to the war in Iraq, his postwar prescriptions for fixing that country’s ills are vague and missing in action as far as content.

On the other hand, Mr. Dean has been highly innovative. His use of the Internet for fund raising and for releasing all-point bulletins to his supporters may open a new chapter for political activists. Recently, the mere suggestion of teaming with retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark as a potential running mate has caused the chattering classes to chatter more vociferously. No doubt there will be other innovations, possibly naming well in advance of the primaries the people who would staff his administration.

His appeal is partly as a populist. But populists invariably fail. Ross Perot self-destructed in 1992. Part of that implosion helped Bill Clinton defeat George H.W. Bush in that election. A similar fate could await Mr. Dean. His star could fall as quickly as it has risen.

But, for the moment, Mr. Dean has the political spotlight shining brightly on him. Some argue that Mr. Dean’s success rests in playing to the most vocal and active left-wing elements of the Democratic Party. This small but influential minority might view him as George McGovern and Michael Dukakis were perceived — real Democrats loyal to certain values of the party that ironically made them unelectable. However, Mr. Dean’s popularity appears to be broader based than that. Why?

Mr. Dean projects an attractive image. More importantly, he gives the impression of delivering “straight talk.” If that strikes a reminiscent chord, it should. In 2000, Sen. John McCain (and in full disclosure the candidate I supported then), launched his “straight talk express.” For a while, Mr. McCain gave George W. Bush a real run for his money. Mr. McCain’s appeal extended far beyond his heroism in Vietnam during a long and harsh captivity. Mr. McCain was candid, direct, gritty and, above all, highly credible in what he said. And, Mr. McCain’s charisma, character and charm were and remain in great abundance.

Mr. Dean is not Mr. McCain. But he seems to understand what made John run. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Mr. Dean has paid Mr. McCain the highest compliment. And, if Americans are motivated by the appearance of straight talk, then Mr. Dean has a real advantage over opponents who rely on conventional political strategies and tactics.

In political terms, November 2004 is light years away. The economy could take off. It could crash. Iraq could suddenly become peaceful and stable. Or, Iraq could erupt into civil war and chaos. Some extraordinary event in the Middle East, Korean peninsula or elsewhere could have huge impact on the election. And surely another terrorist attack in the United States would drive voters one way or the other. The only certainty is that no one knows what the future will bring.

Mr. Dean might or might not gain the nomination and win the presidency. But his candidacy has raised some interesting possibilities. The question is whether this is a temporal or longer lasting phenomenon. It is also what makes politics an art and not a science.

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