President Bush may be about to experience one of those good news-bad news moments. The good news is that all the polls have him running well ahead of all his prospective Democratic challengers; the economy seems to have rebounded (although employment has not), and the effects of the deficits haven't hit yet; inflation remains low, Saddam is behind bars; farmers have their subsidies, the elderly have their prescription drug plan; and now even the "undocumented workers" from Mexico have a chance at the Great American Dream. Better yet, the Democrats may well nominate a former governor from a small state who just happens to oppose all the good things Bush has done, including getting that bastard Saddam.
The bad news is that Howard Dean could beat Bush anyway.
Maybe Dean doesn't have a chance of winning the popular vote in 2004, but, if you look at the Electoral College map, you can soon see how he may not need to. Wouldn't that be an amazing irony? This time around, the loser could likely win the popular vote not by half a million, as did Al Gore, but perhaps upwards of three million.
Do the math: Gov. Dean could win the election by carrying only 20 states. He would need to pick up two states that Al Gore didn't carry: West Virginia and perhaps New Hampshire (or else hold onto New Mexico). He wouldn't have to carry a single southern state, or any Farm Belt state except for Iowa. He would have to carry all the Rust Belt states. He would have to carry the Pacific Northwest -- and, of course, New York, California, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota. If he puts a Southerner on the ticket, which he would (either John Edwards or Wesley Clark), he would have a chance in Arkansas, Missouri and maybe even North Carolina. My guess is that he would be blown out by astronomical margins in all the other Southern and Mountain West states.
Could Dean hold together the Gore states? It would seem that his appeal should have the strongest play in exactly the 20 states he needs. And I don't know about you, but watching him take hit after hit from his Democratic opponents and come back each time puts me in mind of Muhammad Ali's famous "rope-a-dope" strategy that he used successfully against the supposedly unbeatable George Foreman. In the end, Ali neatly disposed of the exhausted Foreman. Dean comes off the ropes like Ali. Having decked yet another primary opponent, he returns to his attack against Bush.
Unlike his primary opponents, Dean more effectively attacks across the general front encompassing a range of salient issues: crony capitalism, tax cuts for the very wealthy, loss of manufacturing jobs on Bush's watch, the Bush arrogance, the fact that Bush has alienated most of our important allies. But Dean doesn't stop there. He skillfully addresses the specifics. He exposes the "No Child Left Behind" act for the intrusive, under-funded sham it is. As a former governor, he shows both understanding the feeling for the difficulties that presidents like Bush create for states through federally imposed unfunded mandates. He exposes the consequences of the President's prescription drug bill. And while he must rethink his position on Iraq, circumstances make this a very fluid issue, Saddam's capture notwithstanding. Six months from now, Dean's argument that Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time, sold to the American public through deception, might appear more obviously correct.
In any case, weak and indecisive he isn't. He actually wants to increase the Defense budget while adjusting priorities. In fact, recent polls show Dean doing well among men, and when was the last time a Democrat could claim to be doing that? Also, he has energized first-time voters in a way not seen since JFK inspired a generation of young people.
Overconfident Republicans, many pundits and not just a few worried Democrats are comparing Dean with McGovern, who, we recall, took Massachusetts by storm back in 1972. The comparison isn't a good one.
Dean, you see, doesn't have McGovern's war record.
But then, neither does George W. Bush.
McGovern, piloting the B-24 he dubbed "The Dakota Queen," flew 36 combat missions during World War II and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. George W. Bush used his connections to duck into the National Guard so he could avoid Vietnam, then just kind of ambled, not so much into history as into AWOL. Four years ago the GOP's real war hero, John McCain, couldn't use his military service to beat the well-packaged legacy from Texas. So much for war records.
Republicans would face in Dean an opponent more in the mold of Bill Clinton, who, in 1992, answered every attack immediately and forcefully. Clinton, too, could come off the ropes punching. While Dean is quick with the rejoinder, he doesn't enjoy JFK's gift for words (who does?). That said, he is not at all bad -- better than most, and a lot better than either Al Gore or G.W. Bush.
I sense that what many Americans of all ideological persuasions see in Howard Dean is not so much the Hamlet-esque George McGovern, but, rather, that blunt, straight-talking politician from another small, out-of-the-way state. I refer to Barry Goldwater. Goldwater got clobbered, but Dean might just have better material.