Mean Mr. Dean

Posted: May 24, 2005 12:00 AM

Everybody knows -- people, polar bears, inanimate objects, Paris Hilton -- that relations between Republicans and Democrats are at some kind of modern low. That partly explains the fuss over judicial nominations in the Senate. But how to explain Howard Dean, who on "Meet the Press," given a chance to backpedal and profess his inner sweetness, declared that, so far as he was concerned, Tom DeLay sure was going to jail, and he, Howard Dean, would keep cheering on the pursuers?
Dean, the Democratic national chairman, had popped off in patented fashion days earlier. Of DeLay, the House Republican leader, Dean opined, "I think [he] ought to go back to Houston, where he can serve his jail sentence." A jail sentence that hasn't been imposed for a conviction that hasn't been obtained, stemming from an indictment that hasn't been handed up following investigations that haven't been completed. Liberal Democratic Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts chided the chairman for "inappropriate" remarks lacking factual basis.

 Never mind all that. Not only did Dean, on "Meet the Press," resume his public thrashing of DeLay, he also reminded viewers that "I hate what the Republicans are doing to this country. I really do." He went on to clobber President Bush and Rush Limbaugh.

 So what's going on? A variety of things, none very encouraging except to those who relish the video-game style in politics: crash 'em, smash 'em, blow 'em up.

 One thing going on is deepening Democratic rage. The Democrats feel a sense of entitlement. The Republicans (as they see it) are space aliens. How come American voters can't see it, too? I felt similarly helpless rage the other day owing to a computer -- what shall I say? -- malfunction. &*$@*$@* it! Why wouldn't the thing work right? It should, but it wouldn't. There was nothing for it but rage -- until I thought of a bottle of chardonnay in the icebox, an expedient I earnestly commend to the Democratic national chairman.

 DeLay's spokesman elaborates, from his own side, a related Democatic anxiety -- that of being: "a party with no ideas, no solutions and no agenda." On this showing, the Rage of Howard merely "shows the sad state the Democrats have sunk to."

 Fair enough, given that the Democrats, while torching the Republicans on Social Security, have smugly resisted offering any reform scheme of their own. But we can't stop there.

 At the heart of this thing (one is entitled to surmise) is too much government. Too-muchness rarely works in anything and certainly not in government, which has to make decisions pleasing to an immense number and variety of people. One reason we can't (thus far) do anything about Social Security is that past Congresses have heaped up this mountain of promises and debts. Everybody is affected. No remedial strategy can please all.

 The same principle operates with regard to taxes, which are too high and too low at the same time, and with public education, which is either just fine or just awful. Government energy policy will either ruin the economy or destroy the planet. Etc., ad infin. We've got so much government policy, in short, that we'll rarely agree on solutions. Since government has taken on almost every conceivable problem, expectations for its success are limitless, as are political ambitions for getting the credit and the kudos.

 Any going back? Any likelihood for the downsizing of government power, thus of voter expectations, and consequently of animosity among those who govern?

 Anything's possible, some things more so than others. Among the least likely: 1) a bipartisan truce requiring Dean to stop trying to throw DeLay in jail and 2) a spirit of reconciliation as to judicial nominations, which, even more than Dean's mouth, symbolize what's amiss. If our politicians hadn't made outsized grants of power to federal judges, asking them to sort out questions like school prayer, education and, especially, human life, people could figure out these questions for themselves -- people outside the no-prisoners ambit of Dean. Meaning -- just possibly -- the vast bulk of us.