WASHINGTON -- Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh asked a simple question, but the answer is not simple. At a meeting of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, Bayh asked fellow Democrats, ``Do we want to vent or do we want to govern?"
Bayh was responding to the ascent of Vermont's former governor, Howard Dean, at the moment, to the status of front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Dean's face is on the covers of Newsweek and Time, and one of Dean's rivals, Sen. Joseph Lieberman -- a Scoop Jackson Democrat in a party more attuned to Jesse Jackson -- on Monday described Dean as ``a ticket to nowhere."
Dean, who believes that extremism in denunciation of George W. Bush and all his works is no vice, has made himself the vehicle for venting by Democratic activists. They comprise the big bleeding liberal heart of the party's nominating electorate, whose detestation of Bush is a witch's brew of revulsion and condescension.
Its three main ingredients are lingering resentment about Florida (they believe the U.S. Supreme Court should not have settled the 2000 election; that Florida's Supreme Court should have), fury about Bush policies from tax cuts to war and, most important, a visceral, almost aesthetic recoil from Bush's persona -- his Texasness, the way he walks, the way he talks. They would not like the way he wears his hat or sips his tea, if he did such things.
When Barry Goldwater decided to go into politics, he said, ``It ain't for life and it might be fun." Politics is supposed to be fun, and it is fun for activists -- that is one reason why they are constantly active. Venting -- the catharsis of letting off steam -- is part of the fun, and is one function of politics.
But only one function. A party is dysfunctional when dominated by people for whom venting is the primary point of politics. That can happen when there is an intraparty vendetta. In 1964, Goldwater Republicans disliked President Lyndon Johnson, but they really disliked Nelson Rockefeller Republicans. Goldwaterites wanted to win, but not as much as they wanted to settle scores with those who had repeatedly frustrated conservatives' hopes for presidential aspirant Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio. And Goldwaterites knew there would be subsequent presidential elections for a Republican Party they could control after a Goldwater candidacy.
Dean Democrats are not like that. However much they fault his rivals, their target is Bush. So the answer to Bayh's question is: They want to govern.