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.
Dean's conceit that he represents ``the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" is a reprise of what Harry Truman supposedly said (apocrypha encrusts his legend; the Truman presidential library cannot confirm this aphorism) to disparage Democrats who were insufficiently combative: Give people a choice between a Republican and a Republican and they will pick the Republican every time. Dean's mantra also echoes Barry Goldwater's boast that he offered ``a choice, not an echo."
Dean knows that he must strike early in the process, for two reasons. First, early on, the ideologically high-octane activists are apt to be a larger proportion of participants in the nominating process than later on. Second, there might not be a later on.
Given the compression of the nomination process, the Democratic nominee probably will be known seven months from now. In 2000, when Bush lost New Hampshire to John McCain, he immediately fell behind McCain in South Carolina. But Bush had 18 days to overtake McCain before South Carolina voted. This year South Carolina votes seven days after New Hampshire. If Dean wins Iowa and New Hampshire, the wave of free media on which he will be surfing could flood South Carolina.
To those who call him ``polarizing," Dean can respond: How do you polarize a polarized electorate? Some in the White House believe that true independents -- those whose votes really are up for grabs, as distinguished from those who call themselves independents but almost always vote one way -- are only about 7 percent of the electorate.
If so, the 2004 election, even more than most elections, will turn on the parties' abilities to turn out their committed supporters. And some in the White House say they are beginning to worry about Dean because he understands that venting may be a practical precursor to governing: Venting energizes the party's base.
That is why some in the White House say they worry that Dean might be an especially dangerous opponent. But, then, Brer Rabbit said, ``Please, Brer Fox, don't fling me in that briar patch."