Critics say the former Vermont governor is taking his party too far to the left, but is he?
Column in its entirety:
First published: Thursday, August 7, 2003
This is a summer of navel gazing for the Democrats. The party that's out of power, and some would even say out of fresh ideas for regaining it, nonetheless seems to be on a mission to reclaim the political center. It's a smart enough strategy, except for the ensuing uncertainty over just where the center is these days. The navel gazers might be startled to see that dead center has moved much closer to the right flank. The old center strikes some in the party as too far to the left.
Nothing illustrates this better than the presidential campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a sort of insurgency effort that's catching fire just as many Democrats who profess to know better had figured his 15 minutes of political notoriety would be over.
Mr. Dean has dared to be among the harsher critics of President Bush on two of the overriding issues of his presidency -- a relentless push for tax cuts and the not-quite-resolved war in Iraq. For that, he's cast as an early 21st century George McGovern, who prevailed over the old guard Democrats in an especially bitter primary campaign and went on to get trounced by President Nixon. Of course, that was in 1972, when Mr. Dean was barely out of Yale and years before he entered politics himself.
Mr. McGovern was on the losing end, ultimately, of nothing less than a political culture war. But it's hard to see how and where Mr. Dean is taking a similarly hard-line stand.
Is his opposition to the Iraq war, fought under circumstances that may yet be the subject of an inquiry by the Republican-controlled Congress, really a guarantee of another landslide defeat for the Democrats, as rival presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, among others, suggests?
If that assertion is premature, an even greater stretch would seem to be the assertion by Mr. Lieberman that Mr. Dean's call for repeal of all $1.7 trillion of Mr. Bush's tax cuts is another recipe for electoral disaster.
Mr. Lieberman says that amounts to a tax increase on the middle class. But didn't President Clinton, whose "third way" politics Mr. Lieberman seems so eager to emulate, raise taxes on the middle class, too? Why could Mr. Clinton get away with that -- literally so, in his case -- in the name of reducing the federal budget deficit? Why is it that Mr. Dean's determination to do away with tax cuts tilted toward the rich, and in the name of cutting a much bigger budget deficit, amounts to radical politics?
Has the political center shifted that much in less than a decade?
Oh, and then there are Mr. Dean's positions on gun control (he'd leave that to the states, mostly, and to the subsequent relief of the National Rifle Association) and the death penalty (he used to be against it, but now he's for it).
And he's too far to the left for the Democrats' best interests?
Somewhere in Mr. Bush's White House, in as right-leaning an administration as this country has had in a very long time, someone is having a good, long laugh.