WASHINGTON -- Before a single vote has been cast anywhere, thoughtful Democrats across the country are reaching a melancholy conclusion. Howard Dean is close to clinching the nomination. The question is not merely whether he can be stopped but also whether he should be stopped.
This poses a dilemma that was discussed during a small, private dinner party last week attended by people actively engaged in politics for much of the last half-century. They viewed Dean's increasingly probable nomination with loathing and fear that it benefits George W. Bush. But to try and stop him now, they agreed, may open a bloody split in the Democratic Party not seen since the great divide of 1972.
This situation is made possible by Democratic reforms following the tumult of 1968. In 1972, at least, the party establishment fought to the bitter end attempting to block the nomination of George McGovern, because his loss of 49 states was widely anticipated. The final touch to the reforms has been added in this cycle by Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe, whose front-loading of primaries was designed to pick an early nominee.
The Dean dilemma was spelled out to me by a sage Democratic practitioner whose views I have sought since 1968. He has felt for months that the former Vermont governor faces horrendous defeat against President Bush. Last week, this party loyalist told me he felt Dean will be nominated unless an act of intervention stops him. He added that he is sure Dean can be stopped but at the cost of unacceptable carnage. Implicitly and reluctantly, therefore, he is swallowing Dean.
The hope inside the Democratic establishment has been that once Dean perceived himself on the road to the nomination, he would pivot sharply toward the center. He may be unable to perform or even attempt this maneuver. He is no ideologue, but he has not outgrown being the smart-aleck kid from Park Avenue with a hard edge. The Democratic savants I have contacted can only shake their heads over his stubborn insistence that Saddam Hussein's capture has not made the country safer.
This discomfort was behind the Democratic group that last week put on television a tough ad depicting Dean as unable to cope with terror or "compete with George Bush on foreign policy." Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi immediately sent out an open letter to the party's other presidential candidates assailing this relatively restrained TV spot as "the kind of fear-mongering attack we've come to expect from Republicans." The ad was pulled off the air, suggesting limits to how far Democrats will go in confronting Dean. If nominated, he can expect much worse from the Republicans.