Why I'm Rooting for Dean

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A question keeps bugging me. Why have I been rooting for Howard Dean to win the Democratic nomination? I'm not a Democrat or even, in contemporary parlance, a liberal. In pure policy terms, I'm probably closer to John Kerry and John Edwards. What's more, Dean's insistence that war against Saddam was wrong strikes me as morally and strategically misguided. His loose accusations of lying in the White House, his airing of notions that George W. Bush had a warning about 9/11, his bad temper and his occasional nastiness are all reasons to back his opponents.

So why do I keep coming back to the fireplug from Vermont? No, I'm not cynically trying to engineer a Bush landslide. And, no, it's not because John Kerry seems such a tired and faded figure (although that's part of it). I just think that the Democrats' sudden panic about Dean's electability is overblown and that the urge to find someone more superficially "presidential" is a trap. It won't help the Democrats in November (I don't know any Democrats who are actually excited about Kerry), and it will deny all of us a real debate about the future direction of the country.

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Dean offers, to purloin a phrase, a choice, not an echo. His pugnacity in defense of his liberal instincts is obviously genuine. After eight years of careful Clintonian positioning, it's refreshing. Compared with Kerry's packaged, tested, hollow rants against "special interests," Dean's straight talk is invigorating. He isn't haunted, as Kerry is, by the specter of Vietnam. Even the famous Iowa scream had more authenticity and fire than Kerry's labored recitation "Bring it on." Unlike Kerry, Dean has held a serious executive office — balancing budgets, reforming health care, innovating on civil rights. Kerry's undistinguished, flip-floppy Senate record is far less impressive.

Is Dean too extreme? On the critical matter of national security, Dean has a more defensible record than Kerry. He backed the first Gulf War, which Kerry couldn't bring himself to do, and the Afghanistan war. His opposition to the Iraq campaign is less a function of knee-jerk isolationism or even left-wing pacifism than a pragmatic judgment about how to fight best. No, alas, he's no Joe Lieberman in the war on terrorism. But his character suggests far more backbone in foreign affairs than does Kerry's Hamlet-like anguish and spin. I don't see Dean as President caving in to Jacques Chirac. And Dean could also save the Democrats from a left-wing split. In 2000 Al Gore lost in part because of the far-left Ralph Nader challenge. Dean has managed to bring these voters back into the fold — without making any drastic policy commitments that could come back to haunt him. Kerry in comparison? Gore redux.

And why not have a candidate who expresses liberal fervor without apology? For a very long time, the Dems haven't allowed themselves to vent about the way they really feel — about those benighted rednecks, clueless preppies, preposterous puritans and economic voodoo artists they believe are running the country. It would be deeply unhealthy for America and the Democrats to repress that any longer. A critical part of Dean — his preppy background, his pastel Christianity, his fiscal prudence, his independent, working wife — truly reflects much of the culture of the Blue States of America. Why on earth shouldn't half the country be represented in a national election?

Would Dean nonetheless be buried in November? Maybe. But maybe not. Bush is vulnerable in many ways — on fiscal negligence, unseen problems in Iraq, corporate coziness. And Dean is a conviction politician. Like Margaret Thatcher, he may command the respect even of those who disagree with him. He once told the New Yorker, "I think the problem with the Democratic Party in general is that they've been so afraid to lose they're willing to say whatever it takes to win. And once you're willing to say whatever it takes to win, you lose." That's a brilliant analysis of what ails the Democrats — and it's why, even under Clinton, they saw their congressional power ebb and collapse. If Dean is a doctor, he's got the diagnosis dead right. I say, Unleash the id.

Besides, Dean has space to move to the center in the spring. He has already made more moderate noises — on taxes (he may not hike them all) and the U.N. (he won't always ask permission to wield American power abroad). His genuine fiscal conservatism and centrist record as Governor might help fend off attacks from the right. But he's not the only vulnerable Democrat on this score. Kerry will be painted as a hyperliberal anyway. Why not have someone who can truly fight back? Sometimes conviction matters. Without it, political parties wither and die. The Democrats haven't seen this kind of nerve in a very long time. They will end up with regrets if they throw it away.