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Teflon Man? 

by Sidney Blumenthal

The presidential party of the party that doesn't hold the White House is like a ghost party that miraculously springs to life in January of the election year. It exists apart from the congressional party and often against it, and it does not proceed through the tortuous path of legislation but as a swift and unforgiving campaign. Though the curtain is just rising on 2004, the action is near the end of the first act.

Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, arrives at his position as front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination by outpacing three successive alternative front-runners. Paradoxically, the fire concentrated on him has only bolstered him.

Dean's frankness has been accompanied by apparent gaffes: for example, his remark that the country is not safer after the capture of Saddam Hussein, a stunning event that, among other things, reversed President Bush's poll slide. In a double whiplash effect, the other candidates, who had been trying for months to persuade Democratic voters that while they had initially supported the Iraq war they were against it all along, repositioned. "Dean will melt in a minute once Republicans start going after him," charged Sen. Joseph Lieberman. Dean "makes a series of embarrassing gaffes that underscore the fact that he is not well-equipped to challenge George Bush," said Rep. Dick Gephardt. "I don't think [Dean] can win either," added Sen. John Kerry. Former Gen. Wesley Clark, for his part, repeatedly insisted that Dean had asked him to be his running mate, which Dean denied, an episode supposedly revealing Dean's duplicity.

Every time Dean makes an artless comment his opponents see blood in the water. There may be blood, they may be sharks, but he emerges unscathed.

Since 1968, when Eugene McCarthy shocked President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, the establishment candidate has been vulnerable to an insurgent. The case for strategic voting has, without exception, never worked. Consider: In 1992, Bill Clinton, under attack for evading the draft during the Vietnam War, was excoriated by his rival, Sen. Bob Kerrey: "I'm not questioning [Clinton's] patriotism, but I guarantee you that George Bush will in November." Kerrey warned, "The Republicans will exploit every weakness" and Clinton "will get opened like a soft peanut."

By calling attention to Dean's boldness (or rashness) without any effectual action of their own, Dean's rivals are underscoring his fusion of acceptable political credentials as the only governor in the race (an experienced executive) who is also the insurgent. They appeal to a mythical establishment to stop him, setting themselves up as the establishment. But the unions are split, with some of the most powerful backing Dean; blacks have no obvious candidate, with many leaders backing Dean; elected officials are widely diffused, with many behind Dean; Al Gore has endorsed Dean; Jimmy Carter, who sees Dean as a kind of reflection of himself, is quietly helpful; and the Democratic National Committee is peripheral.

Yet Dean's opponents continue to sharpen his image as the anti-establishment candidate, an image fitting the Democratic voters' notion of the primaries: a referendum on their view of political reality.

The proximate cause for the intensity among Democrats may seem to be the debate over the Iraq war, but its roots go back to impeachment and Florida. Then, after 9/11, Bush betrayed the bipartisan consensus that had supported the Afghanistan war by smearing the congressional Democrats as unpatriotic. With that, in the 2002 midterm elections, he took back the Senate, rendering them impotent. The Democrats' illusion of good faith had disarmed them. They had behaved as though they were dealing with the elder Bush. Iraq, even for most rank-and-file Democrats who favored the war to depose Saddam, is understood as an extension of the anti-Constitution strategy of the Republicans' ruthless exercise of power.

The sin of the "Washington Democrats" in the eyes of Democrats isn't simply their fecklessness; it's that they have appeared as appeasers. Whether Dean or another Democrat can win the war is another war. But the first requirement for becoming the wartime leader is to understand that there's a war.

The fall of Lieberman as the first front-runner is instructive. His name recognition and standing derived from the 2000 election, but he defined his challenge as running as a high-minded statesman. His angry side is reserved for Democrats upset at Republicans. In failing to license the Democratic sense of what had been done to Lieberman himself, he became superfluous.

Among his complaints against Dean, Lieberman has declared that Dean is not in the mold of Clinton in 1992, as though attempting to repeat the past makes a New Democrat born again. But Dean's pragmatic strategy may be another version of the one Clinton successfully adopted after he suffered the loss of the Democratic Congress in 1994. By defining his position apart from the right-wing Republicans and the "Washington Democrats," as he calls them, Dean has reinvented triangulation.

Sidney Blumenthal is a former assistant and senior adviser to President Clinton and author of The Clinton Wars.

Publication date: 1/08/03
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