WASHINGTON -- For some Republicans, Howard Dean's supremacy among Democratic presidential aspirants -- $10 million expected to be raised in the July-September quarter; a 21-point lead in New Hampshire -- causes merriment. They think a Dean nomination, featuring opposition to the war, enthusiasm for higher taxes and approbation for same-sex civil unions, would mean four more years of what Dean considers the Bush-Ashcroft Terror.
Unless Dean wins. Which is unthinkable.
As unthinkable as a twice-defeated Senate candidate from Illinois, whose single congressional term was more than a decade earlier, being elected president with 39.9 percent of the vote. As unthinkable as a vice president losing a presidential race, then a California gubernatorial race, then six years later winning the presidency. As unthinkable as a movie actor becoming president.
A Dean presidency is not inconceivable. Granted, it is unlikely for reasons that make it undesirable. He may not wear well with the public. If he is half as bright as he thinks he is, he is very bright. And his is no uncertain trumpet: the brio with which he proclaims his beliefs proves that he is not paralyzed by the difference between certitude and certainty.
But there is danger as well as benefit for Dean in his very Deanness. The obverse of his high opinion of himself is his low opinion of President Bush. So he probably would sigh, or do the functional equivalent.
If Al Gore had not expressed his disdain for Bush by those exasperated sighs during the first debate, Gore might be president. But Gore had to sigh. Expressing disdain of Bush was for Gore a sensual delight, almost a metabolic necessity. It might be for Dean, too. But most of the electorate would be unforgiving of bad manners toward any president.
Another potential Dean weakness, implicating his political judgment, is suggested by believable reports that he admires retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former NATO commander. Dean, more than any other possible Democratic nominee, might need a running mate who would assuage anxieties about a former Vermont governor's lack of national security experience.
Other Democrats see Clark as a solution to a problem their party has had since the McGovernite takeover in 1972, the problem of voters' doubts about its competence regarding national security. But the fact that Clark is the kind of military man who appeals to Democrats -- and that they appeal to him -- helps explain why the party has that problem.