Howard Dean: Is he the new George McGovern?
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the anti-war presidential candidate from the state that gave us Ben & Jerry’s politically correct ice cream, is the political flavor of the month after appearing on the covers of Time and Newsweek last week. But can he convert his current popularity into the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination? That question will be answered early next year when the key states of Iowa and New Hampshire hold presidential primaries.
Other questions remain: Is Dean the new George McGovern? Or the new Eugene McCarthy? Or neither of the above? I think the answer is “neither of the above” because Dean defies political stereotypes. While his opponents try to pin the fatal knee-jerk liberal label on him, Dean points to his 10-year record as governor of Vermont, where he cut state spending and balanced the budget while focusing on fiscal responsibility, child care and health-care reform. Early on, he was forced to apologize for saying that “if welfare recipients had any self-esteem, they’d be working.”
In fact, the most radical thing that Dean did as governor was to sign a bill legalizing “civil unions” (gay marriages). Although Dean says he supported the bill but signed it privately in order to quell divisiveness, some gay activists accused him of signing it “in the closet.” That bill will hurt him in the South, where polls show that he trails President Bush by larger margins than other leading Democratic presidential candidates.
But whether he’s a loony lefty or not, Dean simply cannot win the presidency if he’s perceived as weak on defense and national security. He shot himself in the foot earlier this year when he suggested cutting the defense budget while we’re at war against international terrorism. He followed that political misstep with a shaky appearance on NBC’s “Meet The Press” with Tim Russert. When Russert questioned him about U.S. troop strength, Dean said that was like “asking me who the ambassador to Rwanda is.” Oops!
“A Dean nomination could again (mean) Democrats lose 49 out of 50 states,” said Democratic pollster Mark Penn. The campaign manager for rival candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Jim Jordan, explained why Dean will lose: “Dean’s anti-war image will linger and will be used against him,” he told Newsweek. “This ‘security mom’ thing is real. Women are even more hawkish than men. Until you can convince the voters that you, too, can keep the country safe, you don’t get heard on the other stuff.”
And while Dean is currently running neck-in-neck with Kerry in Iowa and New Hampshire, the early primary states, they and other serious contenders — senators John Edwards of North Carolina and Bob Graham of Florida, and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri — are still trailing Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut in nationwide polls of likely Democratic voters. All bets are off, however, if Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York enters the race. Even though she leads all Democrats by wide margins, she also has the highest negative poll numbers of any American politician, which is good news for Bush and the Republicans.
Last week, Lieberman attacked Dean when he told a National Press Club audience that policies rooted in the “vital center” of the political spectrum, rather than the anti-war and big government policies of his rivals, provide the only hope of defeating President Bush. He may be right. As a conservative, states’ rights Democrat, I could actually vote for Lieberman even though he was Weird Al Gore’s running mate three years ago.
Another problem for Dean is his mean streak, which reminds me of Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) candidacy in 2000. I liked McCain a lot until his campaign turned bitter and nasty. Merle Black, a respected political science professor at Atlanta’s Emory University described Dean this way: “He’s a New Yorker (and) he’s very aggressive. For voters who aren’t ideological, they look at candidates and see if they think he’s a nice guy. I don’t think Dean is that nice guy.” That description makes him sound like failed Nevada gubernatorial candidate Aaron Russo, a Hollywood movie producer.
But the larger problem for the Democrats may revolve around how they deal with all of their special interest groups — teachers’ and labor unions, trial lawyers, gay and lesbian activists, militant minorities etc. etc. “The interest groups don’t really like to win,” said James Carville, who engineered ex-President Clinton’s victories in 1992 and 1996. “They just want a big ass-kissing festival… The Republicans don’t make Bush go to the NRA convention and hold an assault weapon up over his head for the crowd,” as the NAACP did to Democratic candidates Edwards and Lieberman by forcing them to apologize and grovel before delegates to the organization’s annual convention in May.
Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter summarized the Democrats’ dilemma by recalling an old Will Rogers line, “I’m a member of no organized political party; I’m a Democrat.” By contrast, the Republicans are very well organized. We’ll know by early next year whether the Democrats can overcome their ideological and tactical confusion. Don’t bet on it.
BAD IDEA D The Mexican government’s “matricula consular” (consular ID) is a blatant attempt to legalize illegal immigrants in the U.S. Although the document has been endorsed by the Nevada Legislature and the Latin Chamber of Commerce, among others, it’s still a bad idea.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.