Dangerous Dean: Is the current front-runner really electable?
"Mr. McGovern, the last insurgent Democrat to run for president on an antiwar platform, sees parallels between the 1972 race and the current campaign. And in the candidacy of Howard Dean, he hears echoes of his own." (Rosenbaum, David. "Washington Talk; The Race According to George McGovern." The New York Times, 11/4/2003.)
We Democrats have one chance to beat President Bush in 2004 and it's high time that we start talking about who can put together a winning coalition of voters. Too long have Democrats endlessly searched for the savior candidate, the one who perfectly reflects our views and opinions. It's time for a simple lesson in politics: we have to win in order to govern. I would rather win with a candidate who holds most of my views than lose with a nominee who represents all of them.
I simply do not believe that "frontrunner" Howard Dean can beat President Bush in 2004. Dean was the governor of a tiny, liberal state and has virtually no international experience. Although I often hear that Dean is quite moderate on many issues, most notably gun control, his political speeches and media image paint a far more radical portrait. Dean himself boasts how he "represents the democratic wing of the Democratic Party." The truth, however, is that that ultra-liberal "wing" represents only a very small portion of the party itself, let alone the voting public. We need a candidate who will do more than merely harness the hatred of Bush among Democratic activists. We need a candidate who can win in the general election.
Republicans win many elections because they are very good at placing candidates into a political context. Think for a moment about how Bush will use his position as president to mold the national debate in the 2004 election in terms of national security. I can just see chief political strategist Karl Rove sitting in his White House office grinning every time he hears Dean's name. Campaign images of Bush as a father figure will flow unchecked in "issue ads" from the Republican Party and its political action committees and Dean will have no solid experience upon which to stand.
This is true now even among the Democratic candidates. I was not comforted this week by Dean's comments in an interview with Chris Matthews on Hardball: "Well, John Kerry and the other Democratic candidates and I all get advice from the same kinds of people, and in many cases the same people. Most people will advise many of the presidential candidates. And they do, and they're very good people."
Advisors? I keep thinking about a possible Republican ad that features Bush standing at Ground Zero or in front of the Pentagon as the Commander in Chief. "He was there" or "he's protecting us" is all it would take to completely turn the political agenda away from domestic politics to national security. If Governor Dean cannot even spin Chris Matthews now, how is he going to deflect a potential shock-and-awe bombardment from the Commander in Chief? The Democratic Party must accept the fact that it may have a very difficult time framing the political debate in the 2004 election.
It would also be wise to note that 2003 is not 1991. This Administration has learned from the lessons of Bush Sr. and is now virtually obsessed with ensuring that the national agenda blends both foreign and domestic issues. The latest sign that domestic trouble is brewing for the Democratic Party happened last week when the A.A.R.P. backed the Republican Party's Medicare prescription drug plan. While it's clearly a massively scaled-down program with serious flaws, it is a program. President Dubya is an astute politician and Democrats would be very wise not to underestimate his ability to mold the national debate on his political terms.
Dean is at his best when confronting Bush on his national policies, but still he's a lousy choice when the debate is shaped in terms of national security. Democrats cannot stand on domestic issues alone in 2004. While the American public may be more willing to tolerate a candidate with a less-solid national agenda, I vehemently believe that the nation will not vote for a candidate who is perceived to be weak on national security in a post-September 11th world.
Who are we kidding here? Are we honestly considering nominating the former governor of one of the most liberal states to challenge a president that lands on aircraft carriers and flies secret missions to Iraq? Howard Dean is running at the wrong time and in the wrong race. Former President Jimmy Carter agrees, telling Time this week that he was turning down Dean for "whoever I think will have the best chance next November."
Please don't misunderstand me. I think that Howard Dean would make an able and effective president. I hope that if he wins the primary election he will become a strong and moderate candidate in the general election. Dean could move back to the political center, select a VP candidate that glows with international experience and still put together a winning coalition. Governor Dean's recent flirtation in politics, however, suggest otherwise.
This is why I get very nervous when I hear George McGovern say that "in the candidacy of Howard Dean, he hears echoes of his own." Democrats risk not only losing this election but also further reinforcing the belief among the public that Democrats are poor guardians of national security.
It's time for the Democratic Party to make some critical decisions. We need to unite behind a serious candidate that has both domestic political muscle and the international experience to take on the cowboy president. Let's start viewing our candidates more in terms of political strategy and move away from the fantasy of Governor Howard Dean.
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