It is the redeeming quality of American politics that occasionally a figure comes along unique enough to transcend all the operatives and G.O.T.V. manuals and crafted sound bites of a normal (which is to say, boring) political campaign. One such is Howard Dean, the Vermont ex-governor and Democratic presidential candidate whose cross-country campaign tour of last week is the subject of this week's Flyer cover story.
Dean has become a phenomenon by doing something that, for other Democrats this campaign season, has evidently become undoable -- taking the fight forthrightly to the opposition, in this case no less than the president of the United States, George W. Bush. Republicans have been doing this to Democrats for quite some time, and it has, arguably, gained them control of the presidency, the House, the Senate, most governorships, and (not coincidentally) the Supreme Court.
Democrats have -- no other way to put it -- feared to.
Putting aside for the moment the rights and wrongs of the president's tax cuts or his decision to make war in Iraq, it is incontestable that these are policies of high national moment. What has distinguished the commentary of most leading Democrats on these issues, at least up to the present moment, is the tentative -- nay, mealy-mouthed -- nature of it all. So carefully calculated so as to seem pale shadows of the president's own pronouncements, most official Democratic statements have been of the "yes, but" variety -- failing in both clarity and apparent sincerity.
One is reminded of former President Harry Truman's reported statement that if Americans are given a choice between a Republican point of view and a Republican point of view, "they'll take the Republican every time."
Dean, in conscious emulation of Truman (and of Republicans like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan), has decided to provide instead the proverbial "choice, not an echo." Of all things -- the presentation of an opposing point of view! Dean even says out loud that he thinks the president might be (shhhhh) lying about some things.
That kind of forthrightness is, right or wrong, what got Dean to where he is today: in front of the Democratic pack of presidential hopefuls and about to make a rout of the primary race. Dean argues convincingly that if he keeps it up he'll draw three or four million new voters out, enough to make a difference at the polls.
There was an after-hours moment during his campaign tour last week -- in San Antonio, Texas, of all places -- when Dean and members of his staff took turns, as an outgrowth of their prep for a televised Democratic debate this week, doing impressions of the Vermonter's party rivals. Dean, at 5' 8", was especially skillful at suggesting a long, lean Senator John Kerry drawing himself up, caterpillar-like, to his full dignified height. And he did a credible molasses-mouthed version of John Edwards, the senator from North Carolina.
(The candidate's staff would just as soon we hadn't blabbed all that, but, hey, telling it means telling it.)
There's one potential Democratic candidate that Dean doesn't have a distance on yet, and that's former NATO commander Wesley Clark, the telegenic Arkansan (sound familiar?) who, like Dean, is a critic of Bush's tax cuts and his Iraq policies and is apparently about to announce his own candidacy for the presidency during the next week or two.
The two of them will be talking before that happens, said Dean, who granted that Clark's positions were similar but opined that he might draw more votes away from Kerry than from himself.
If Clark does get in, we'll have a sudden embarrassment of riches. Two candidates willing to put it on the line? All we can say is, Bring it on!
Senior editor Jackson Baker writes politics for the Flyer.