DATE: 1/02/2004 08:30:00 AM
Democrat Goldwater - Over the past few months, pundits have been saying the Democrat party has a McGovernite candidate in Howard Dean - an unapologetic liberal who thrills supporters with his rhetoric. In the Washington Times, Wesley Pruden argues in this way, Dean is less like McGovern and more like conservative Barry Goldwater, the late senator from Arizona.
In many ways, the comparison seems apt. Both Dean and Goldwater supporters are marked by their ideological purity and refusal to compromise with those from the other party. One major difference that Pruden touches on but does not elaborate, though, is that Goldwater had ideas behind his fiery rhetoric. Dean does not. Other than a few vague pronouncements, Dean has said little about what he will do as president. Most of what we know about what a Dean presidency would look like is expressed in the negative - what Dean will not do that Bush is currently doing. Dean's candidacy is propelled primarily by the fury he expresses while on the stump. Lately, Dean's anger has touched a nerve in the Democrat party, as the candidate rails against the so-called 'Washington Democrats.' This, more than anything, has worried that party.
When Dean was directing his anger at the Bush administration, it was nonthreatening or even welcome. Nothing fires up the base more than reminding them of past 'outrages' by one's political enemies. Dean's anger at the party, though, takes his candidacy in an entirely new direction, one that cannot be so easily controlled by the usual mechanisms of political party rule.
Third Party Run? - What the Democrats are afraid of is the transferability of Dean's support. When support of a candidate is based on ideology, that support is easily transferable from one candidate to another - the supporters want someone who can further their ideas and beat the opposition.
Dean's candidacy has never really been based on his ideas. It has been based in the smoldering anger many Democrats feel over losing in 2000 and 2002. More than any other Democrat candidate, Dean has become a conduit for that anger - a way for those who have no megaphone to make their anger known. When Dean speaks, he is speaking for thousands who feel nothing but contempt for the Bush administration. Dean's supporters are not simply ideologically invested in Dean - they are emotionally invested. Their anger, their frustration, their belief in the rightness of their cause and in the evil of their enemies - Dean has become the one man in their eyes who can express those feelings on a national stage so others can hear.
Many in the Democrat party were angry at Dean recently for hinting his supporters may stay home if he's not the candidate. Dean was not simply bragging or threatening, though. I think he was speaking the truth. The passion people feel for Dean is for what he represents, not entirely who he is. And now that Dean has separated himself from the other candidates and dismissed them as 'Washington Democrats,' it would be almost impossible for those supporters to join another campaign if Dean loses. If Dean loses, the candidate who beats him would be hated by many of Dean's supporters for beating their champion.
This is why some pundits have speculated Dean may launch a third-party bid for the presidency if he loses the Democrat primary. Dean's passion will not fade with a loss, nor will the passion of his supporters. His is an outsider candidacy, and a loss in the primaries would only enhance his image of a man on a crusade, a man who is punished for speaking the truth as his supporters see it.
Now What? - This puts Democrats in a bind. If they nominate Dean, his propensity to say nonsensical things, ignored by his supporters, will hurt him among independent voters and fire up the Republican base. If they don't nominate Dean, he may run on his own. Even if he doesn't, though, many who would have voted for the former Vermont governor would not vote on election day, as they would feel betrayed by their party.
This does not mean Republicans should be complacent. In fact, it should spur them to work harder. If Dean is nominated and does badly in the general election, it may give the president some coattails, which could lead to larger majorities in the House and Senate. The days of filibustering and Democrat obstructionism would be done for at least two years. Given the Republican track record, I can't say I'm optimistic about the party's ability to do the smart thing, but the opportunity is there.