Stop Dean

With America’s primary elections drawing nearer, polls overwhelmingly favor Howard Dean as the Democratic nominee for the presidency. This is a mistake that will cost Democrats dearly for years to come. Democrats not yet tied up in the Governor’s race should do all they can to avoid the unelectable Dr. Dean’s appearance on the national ticket. Dr. Dean’s rise has been a long time in the making. Since Bill Clinton’s departure from office, the party has been in disarray, presenting weak opposition even to President Bush’s most unpopular initiatives, like his recent tax cuts and the war in Iraq. As alienation has risen among the party’s faithful—the left and far-left wings which haven’t been represented in recent times—Dr. Dean, who saw only 3 percent support one year ago, has capitalized and emerged as the leader with 24 percent support among Democratic voters. But while his rise is remarkable, his electoral infallibility is nothing more than a myth. Dr. Dean’s rise has less to do with the candidate—whom only 31 percent of Americans consider “a liberal”—and more to do with desperate political times and Dr. Dean’s willingness to shoot his mouth off. On various occasions over the recent months, Dr. Dean has claimed Bush was tipped about the 9/11 attacks, asserted that America is no safer since Saddam Hussein’s capture, and wrongly accused John Edwards of waffling on the Iraq war. While statements like these may appease the Democratic left, the recklessness of his comments, and subsequent backtracking, spell suicide for any candidate up for general election in a right-center country. But why bother? After all, President Bush, showing high approval ratings and working with a record-smashing fundraising machine, will surely be re-elected, right? Shouldn’t Democrats go down in a blaze of idealistic glory? Wrong; this, too, is a myth. A recent Newsweek poll shows 50 percent of Americans do not want Bush to serve a second term, compared with only 44 percent who do. With the strongest Democratic support, is Dr. Dean not the obvious choice? This is where Dr. Dean’s troubles begin. Sixty-nine percent of Americans say they know little about Dr. Dean. As voters learn more about his lackluster gubernatorial record—buoyed by 11 balanced budgets under his watch but marred by pandering to Vermont’s right in gun control and gay rights—and absorb his pledge to undo Bush’s tax cuts, his support will wane. The nail in Dr. Dean’s coffin: 3/4 of his supporters say they could change their minds, far less supporter loyalty than other candidates poll. Given the man and his record in office and on the trail, it is likely that many of these voters will in fact change their minds. But it is unlikely such a sea change in electorate opinion will take place in appropriate time, particularly without prodding from the Democratic establishment. The problem with Dr. Dean’s appearance on the general election ticket is his utter inability to overcome Bush. Save a few issues—fiscal responsibility and gun control—Mr. Dean’s positions, though attractive to America’s small left-wing, are utterly repulsive to the majority of America’s religious, center-right electorate. With none of the moderation or subtle charm Bill Clinton employed in his successful bids, Mr. Dean unabashedly embraces civil unions, repealing of Bush’s tax cuts, full gay integration into the military, a zealously conservationist environmental agenda, widely expanded national health coverage, and a strongly multilateral foreign policy. And he does this with a swagger. Dr. Dean can be ousted, particularly by General Wesley Clark, who climbed by nearly 10 percentage points over December, to come within five points of Dr. Dean in the Democratic party. Gen. Clark—whose record on the most important issue of the election, national security, is unassailable—boasts a strong moderate support base that will continue to expand as the Democratic field narrows and disgust with Dr. Dean grows. Many leftist Democrats will, if faced with a Clark vs. Bush ticket, move to their party’s center for the sake of ousting Bush, but many moderate Democrats may well choose Bush, as happened in 2000, over the extremist, tax-raising Dr. Dean. An encouraging sign for Gen. Clark is that among Democrats, Dr. Dean boasts only a 46 to 42 percent win in a head-to-head race against Gen. Clark. Clark’s momentum is kicking in at the right time in the electoral season, and endorsements by prominent party figures would aid his speedy rise. Unfortunately, much of the Democratic machinery has already played its hand, most recently seen in Al Gore’s and Bill Bradley’s endorsements of Dr. Dean’s campaign. The remaining five serious contenders have been left scrambling for such headline-grabbing endorsements, not all-important—Dick Gephardt, who is arguably the strongest in this respect, especially with unions, is polling only single digits among nationwide Democrats—but certainly helpful. Many prominent Democrats haven’t yet emerged from the woodwork, most notably former Pres. Bill Clinton. Political tradition and etiquette prohibit the former President and party luminary from getting involved in the party’s primaries—but given the dire circumstances, Mr. Clinton would be well advised to disregard this tradition. Times are growing desperate. Dr. Dean can be ousted, and Democrats can restore hope for capturing the White House in November. But with the first primaries only two weeks away, and the rest soon to follow, the clock is ticking.