It's All About Electability

The Democratic race has come down to one issue. It was raised at the December 9 New Hampshire debate by moderator Ted Koppel. "I would like all of you up here—including you, Governor Dean—to raise your hand if you believe Governor Dean can beat George W. Bush," Koppel said.

Only one hand went up—Dean's. "The way to beat George Bush is to do exactly the opposite of what all the 'inside-the-Beltway' candidates want to do," Dean said in a television interview in July. "The way to beat him is to go out there and build a huge group of people who haven't been involved in politics before."

That's movement politics. It's the opposite of coalition politics, the tried-and-true approach that usually prevails. Barry Goldwater was a movement politician. So was George McGovern. Like Dean, they relied on energizing a "hidden majority" of voters by offering them what Goldwater famously called "a choice, not an echo."

Uh-oh.

Thus, the conventional wisdom about Dean: He's a sure loser. "I have spent a lot of time talking to Republican pollsters, privately and on a background basis, and saying, 'Is there any of the major Democratic candidates who would be easier to beat than Howard Dean?'" columnist David Brooks reports. "They all say, 'No. Dean's the easiest to beat.' "

Consider this piece of evidence: New Hampshire voters know Howard Dean. He's been campaigning there for months, and he governed the state next door. Moreover, Dean has a wide lead among New Hampshire Democrats. But look at what happens when you ask a sample of New Hampshire voters how they would vote, given the choice between Bush and Dean: Bush 57 percent, Dean 30 percent, in a poll taken this month by the American Research Group.

Uh-oh. Dean's Democratic rivals have started to raise the "electability" issue. Carefully.

Dean has no national or international experience, they point out. And no military record. "We have to be the party that can stand toe-to-toe with George W. Bush on national security," Wesley Clark said in the New Hampshire debate.

Most Americans are critical of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. But Dean is critical of the war. He says President Bush has "endangered the security of the United States of America by going into Iraq, and that was a mistake." Sixty percent of Americans say the war was not a mistake, according to a recent Gallup Poll. Democrats may have problems rallying the country around the idea that the French were right.

Dean is a "coastal candidate" who may be weak in the heartland. "To beat George Bush, you've got to beat him all across the top of this country—not just in California and New York, but in places like Missouri and Ohio and West Virginia," Dick Gephardt said. Dean could pull the Democratic Party to the left on many issues. "This campaign for the Democratic nomination is fundamentally a referendum ... about whether we're going to build on the Clinton transformation in our party," Joe Lieberman declared.

Dean signed a gay-civil-union bill and is suspected of having culturally elitist values—a point made by Scott Spradling, the co-moderator at the New Hampshire debate. "Governor Dean said recently that religion does not play into his policy decisions," Spradling noted. "Do you believe this could hurt the Democratic Party's chances in areas of the country like the South, where politics and religion tend to go very much hand in hand?"

Dean calls himself a fiscal conservative. But hard-line fiscal conservatives are already running a TV ad against him. "Howard Dean says he'll raise taxes on the average family by more than $1,900 a year," according to an ad run by the Club for Growth.

So what was Al Gore doing endorsing Dean? It was a signal to the party establishment: "Don't try to stop this guy. We've got to close ranks behind him." Gore is clearly impressed by Dean's army of Internet-savvy political insurgents. "Howard Dean really is the only candidate who has been able to inspire, at the grassroots level all over this country, the kind of passion and enthusiasm for democracy and change ... that we need," Gore said.

There's a movement going on, and Gore doesn't want to stop it. He wants to be part of it, even if it loses. Goldwater's movement lost the election but remade the Republican Party. Gore claims that the Dean movement is "promising to remake the Democratic Party as a force for justice and progress and good in America."

A reporter promptly asked Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton whether she thought the Democratic Party needs a makeover. Her answer? "No." By embracing Dean, Gore has once more distanced himself from the Clinton legacy. If Dean loses, could Gore be setting up to run for president in 2008? He might have to face Hillary Clinton, but she'd be the candidate of the past. He'd be the man of the future, allied with a hip political movement that feels indebted to him. Gore, the Dean dude.

Dean would not be an easy candidate to elect. But neither was Ronald Reagan—a movement candidate who won. To elect Dean, one thing is necessary: a discredited incumbent. Like Jimmy Carter in 1980. And Bush's father in 1992. Both years, supposedly unelectable candidates—Reagan and Bill Clinton—got elected. George W. Bush, who's basking in the capture of Saddam Hussein, is not in that kind of trouble. At least not now.