Tuesday, January 6, 2004

The unofficial Conservative Pundit Full-Employment Act — aka the Howard Dean presidential campaign — currently working its way through the democratic process in Iowa and New Hampshire looks pretty much unstoppable at this point.

If Dean wins those early primaries, it’s almost guaranteed he will be the Democratic nominee. Of course, the good people of Iowa and New Hampshire have a rich heritage of smashing such predictions the way John Belushi smashed that guitar in “Animal House.” So, let’s just assume I’ve invoked the appropriate “anything can happen” cliche.

I’ve largely decided that I want Dean to get the nomination. In my more patriotic moments, I realize how selfish this is. As an American, I should hope that the best, most qualified, candidate gets the Democratic nomination on the chance he might become president.

In that sense, Joe Lieberman should be my guy. But he’s got no chance of winning the nomination. Richard Gephardt probably wouldn’t be a disaster except on economic issues. Meanwhile, John Kerry is the most incoherent major presidential contender of my lifetime, so, frankly, I have no idea what kind of president he’d make. Maybe, if he achieved his lifelong dream of being president, he’d just sit in the Oval Office shooting at TV sets like Elvis.

In fact, with the exceptions of Kerry, Carol Mosley-Braun, Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton, I think Dean is probably the worst choice of a pretty awful field. It reminds me of that 1960 bumper sticker that read: “Kennedy and Nixon: Thank God Only One of Them Can Win!”

But then I get selfish. There are at least three reasons I’d like Dean to be the nominee.

First, Dean provides a real alternative to Bush. As commentators Andrew Sullivan and Bill Kristol have already pointed out, an election between George W. Bush and Howard Dean would provide a stark choice in 2004.

To be fair, I thought that the Gore vs. Bush 2000 contest offered a stark choice, too. Gore turned his back on the Clinton legacy of policy centrism and ran as a fire-breathing populist. The problem was that he looked a bit phony, since he’d spent 20 years building up a reputation as a moderate.

Dean has undergone a similar reinvention. But he has the advantage of being an unknown to most Americans, so his reinvention doesn’t make him look like an opportunist the way Gore’s did.

Regardless, stark choices are good for politics and for people who write about politics. Dean has promised or strongly suggested that he wants to reregulate big business, raise tariffs, go a long way toward socializing medicine, scrap any initiatives toward privatization, raise taxes on everybody, including the middle class, and entrench quota-style affirmative action.

And, most significant, at a moment when national security is of monumental importance, Dean has adopted a “do the opposite of George” foreign policy. If Bush is for it, Dean must be against it. It’s almost like Dean’s the anti-matter universe version of George Bush — like in the “Star Trek” where Captain Kirk is evil and Spock wears a goatee.

Which leads me the second reason I’m increasingly gung-ho for Dean: He says such amazingly crazy things, he’s just so much more entertaining than the ever-cautious Gephardt. For example, Dean recently said that he didn’t want to “prejudge” Osama bin Laden’s guilt or innocence since he’d have to face a “jury trial.”

Can you imagine FDR declaring he didn’t want to “pre-judge” Hitler? The comment was a parody of conservative complaints about the Democratic Party’s approach to the war on terror; they see it as a pesky law-enforcement problem.

Last Sunday at an Iowa debate, Dean tried to explain that “a candidate for president of the United States is obligated to stand for the rule of law.” However, he added, “I have no doubt that if we capture Osama bin Laden, he will end up with the death penalty.”

Um, so which is it? Does he not want to prejudge bin Laden or is he sure he’ll get the death penalty? Because if he’s keeping an open mind about bin Laden’s guilt, then being sure he’ll get the chair is a problem.

This sort of nonsense is typical Dean. When his statements end up making him look ridiculous, he offers an explanation that in many ways is worse than the original gaffe. He’s like a guy who spills soup on himself and then thinks he’s covering himself by saying, “I meant to do that.”

Which brings me to third reason I want him to be nominated: I think he’d lose badly (unless the economy and Iraq tank). And when Dean loses 40 states, I’d like to see him say, “I meant to do that.”

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