Howard Dean is mounting a full-throated challenge to the Democratic Party establishment. "I want to take back the Democratic Party so we stand for something again," the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination says. He has criticized President Clinton's "Third Way" as nothing more than "damage control."
Dean is surging toward the Democratic nomination. Nothing stops him—not even the capture of Saddam Hussein, which was widely seen as discrediting Dean's anti-war stance. A Washington Post/ABC News poll of registered Democrats showed Dean's support rising from 17 percent in October to 20 percent in early December, and to 31 percent after Hussein's capture, when no other Democrat was in double digits.
To many Democratic insiders, however, Dean looks like a disaster waiting to happen. They see him as too liberal, too inexperienced, too rash, too angry. Other Democratic candidates are getting tough with Dean. Joe Lieberman found his anti-Dean voice after his mentor, Al Gore, endorsed Dean. "This man would take us back to where the Democratic Party was before Bill Clinton—weak on security, [supportive of] big taxes, big spending, and against trade," Lieberman charged.
Dean's rivals are sending out nasty e-mails. One was in response to Dean's comment last month that he needed to "plug the [foreign-policy] hole" in his resume by selecting an experienced running mate. A campaign operative for John Kerry sent out an e-mail with "Twenty Donut Holes for Dean," including "#15—Thinks Vacation Equals Foreign Policy Experience," and "#2 —Thinks We Should Change 50 Years of U.S.-Israel Policy." The e-mail quotes Dean as saying, "It's not our place to take sides in the [Middle East] conflict."
These attacks could be the beginning of an "ABD" (Anybody But Dean) movement resembling the "ABC" (Anybody But Carter) movement that tried to stop Jimmy Carter in the 1976 Democratic primaries. The Anybody But Carter movement failed because it started too late: Carter had already won the crucial early primaries. The Anybody But Dean movement is starting before a single primary vote has been cast. But it doesn't seem to be getting anywhere. Dean's army marches on, shrugging off the effort to discredit its candidate. The more the establishment turns on Dean, the more his supporters are energized.
Gore, a key establishment figure, has embraced Dean. Like many party leaders, Gore is enraptured by Dean's Internet army. Maybe he can win, they say, by bringing out a huge anti-establishment vote. "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 in this country," Gore said.
The Anybody But Dean movement may simply fizzle. This month's Time/CNN poll asked Democrats how they would vote if there were only two candidates left in the race for the Democratic nomination, Dean and someone else. Would Democrats support Dean or try to stop him?
Faced with a choice between Dean and Lieberman, Democrats said they would go for Dean by an 18-point margin (50 percent to 32 percent). What about Wesley Clark, who is positioning himself as the electable alternative to Dean? Democrats prefer Dean to Clark by 14 points (46 percent to 32 percent). Kerry, Dick Gephardt, and John Edwards all run more than 20 points behind Dean.
"The Democratic establishment lacks the will to stand up for its beliefs," conservative columnist David Brooks wrote recently in The New York Times. He saw a parallel between Dean and the challenge mounted by John McCain to the Republican Party establishment in 2000. The GOP establishment squashed McCain like a bug. "When McCain hit them, they hit back, viciously," Brooks wrote. Will the Democrats do the same thing to Dean? Unlikely, Brooks argued. "They are responding as any establishment responds when it has lost confidence in itself, when it has lost faith in its ideas, when it has lost the will to fight."
But there is another reason most Democrats may refuse to try to stop Dean: They agree with him. McCain challenged the conservative ascendancy over the Republican Party. Conservatives fought back in the name of protecting their core values. Dean says he is fighting for his party's core values. He likes to describe himself as representing "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."
"We have to have the values of the Democratic Party," he has said. "In Washington, the culture is to say whatever it takes to get elected." The case against Dean is premised on the belief that he can't get elected. The Time/CNN poll does show President Bush leading Dean among likely voters, but by only 5 points (51 percent to 46 percent). That's less than the poll's margin of error. No other Democrat does as well against Bush. Clark— supposedly Mr. Electability—loses to Bush by 10 points (53 percent to 43 percent). Dean looks like less of a loser than any other Democrat in the race.
Dean's positions—anti-war, anti-Bush—are precisely in line with the views of most rank-and-file Democrats. He's aiming his insurgency at the "Washington Democrats"—possibly including the Clintons—who, he claims, have sold the party out by compromising its values for no other reason than to get elected. Dean intends to prove that he can do it a different way—his way.
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