WASHINGTON -- Probably more than twice, but certainly twice, Howard Dean has said something sensible. He has been roundly roasted for both indelicacies, the roasters being his rivals for the Democratic nomination.
A decade ago Dean said the Social Security retirement age should be raised. Well, yes. If in 1935, when Congress enacted Social Security, it had indexed the retirement age to life expectancy (which for American males was 62 -- Congress did ruthless arithmetic in that sterner era), the retirement age today would be 73 and Social Security's problems would be much diminished. But reasonableness is scandalous in Democratic primaries, so Dean has recanted and vowed to sin no more.
But he is a recidivist, and his latest sin is as scarlet as a portion of the Confederate flag. He said he wants even the votes of ``guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.'' He now says he meant poor people. He does not say, but might as well say, he meant poor, stupid, white bigots.
This glimpse of the cartoons about the South that are always running in the heads of New England liberals moves Sen. Zell Miller, the Georgia Democrat who is retiring, to say, ``Dean knows as much about the South as a hog knows about Sunday.'' The South, Miller notes with magnificent impatience, is an economic powerhouse and has 5,500 African-Americans in elective office. Miller remembers another New Englander, presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, at a Georgia rally in 1988: ``They had all these bales of hay stashed around here and there, like it was some kind of set from the television show `Hee Haw.'''
For Dean and Deanites, the idea of courting the Confederate-flag-and-pickups cohort probably gives them the frisson of walking on the wild side, the tingle of keeping bad company, like a professor in a biker bar. But Dean's statement, which dripped a kind of regional disdain, was a clumsy attempt to make a sensible point: Disdain no voters.
Nevertheless, John Kerry, who understands the Democrats' testosterone primary, recently got off his Harley and took photographers to watch him kill Iowa pheasants. He called it ``simply unconscionable'' for Dean to ``embrace'' that ``divisive symbol.'' Dick Gephardt, who is comfortable in the company of Al Sharpton, the star of the Tawana Brawley hoax, said he did not want the votes of guys with such flags on such trucks. Gephardt did not specify what other categories of Americans were too loathsome to accept votes from. Wesley Clark, who has been a Democrat for only a few weeks but who is a fast learner of the language of liberalism, crammed the words ``inclusion'' and ``diversity'' into a statement denouncing the flying of Confederate flags on public buildings.
This pettiness preoccupies would-be presidents as the markets, responding to the fastest quarterly growth of the economy (7.2 percent) in 19 years, are ascending--NASDAQ up 55 percent from its low this year, the Dow up 30 percent and as of Tuesday just 142 points shy of recrossing the 10,000 threshold. The Democratic candidates seem not to understand that as the economy becomes a smaller issue, the election becomes bigger.
It does because the election becomes almost entirely about a single large question: What should be America's role in the world? The Democratic candidates' answers, other than Joseph Lieberman's, range from incoherence to ruinous clarity.
The incoherence is: We favored removing Saddam Hussein, but oppose having done it without the cooperation of other nations who made it clear they were never going to participate. We support the troops in the field but oppose the money for them to continue what they are in the field to do, which is complete the emancipation of Iraq from tyranny's aftermath.
The ruinous clarity is: Come home America. That is the pole toward which Dean, and the declining saliency of domestic issues, is pulling the Democrats, who are not having a happy autumn.
Until Oct. 7, 26 states with 46 percent of the nation's population had Republican governors. Then Californians remembered that they really wanted a Republican governor after all. Then on Tuesday Mississippi and Kentucky elected Republicans to replace Democrats. When all three are inaugurated, and if Republicans on Nov. 15 retain the Louisiana governorship, the GOP will govern 29 states with 60.6 percent of the population.
On Monday, Florida's Sen. Bob Graham joined South Carolina's Fritz Hollings, North Carolina's John Edwards and Georgia's Miller as the fourth Southern Democratic senator to announce that he would not seek re-election. Louisiana's John Breaux may be a fifth. That is one way for Democrats to avoid the shame of receiving votes from people with politically incorrect pickups.