Tough pill for the Democrats

Posted: Dec 28, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Arthur Goldberg was a fine public servant -- secretary of labor, Supreme Court justice, ambassador to the United Nations -- but a dreadful candidate for governor of New York in 1970, when it was said that if he gave one more speech he would lose Canada, too. Howard Dean is becoming Goldbergean.

Regarding foreign policy, Dean recently said not only that America is no safer because Saddam is captured, but that America is ``no safer today than the day the planes struck the World Trade Center.'' Well. He says he supported the war to remove the Taliban in Afghanistan, although he thinks it made us no safer. And even though he says the war in Iraq made us no safer, he says he would ``not have hesitated'' to attack Iraq if the U.N. had given us ``permission.''

Because Dean's foreign policy pronouncements have been curiouser and curiouser, his recent domestic policy speech did not get the attention it deserved for its assertion that America is boiling with ``anger and despair.'' Republicans are, Dean says, trying to ``dismantle'' the welfare state -- presumably when they are not enriching Medicare's entitlement menu -- and they aim ``to end public education.''

Dean is why there is both good and bad news for Democrats in Newsweek's latest presidential poll. The good news is that George W. Bush is in a 46-46 dead heat when matched against an unnamed Democrat. The bad news is that the Democratic nominee will have, among other problematic attributes, a name, probably Dean's.

When a poll pits a known individual, with all his public record and personal imperfections, against a generic candidate, the people polled are apt to imagine the generic candidate as a blend of Abraham Lincoln and Tom Hanks. But Democrats are beginning to imagine Dean as their nominee, targeted by Republican ads recycling John Kerry's opinion that Dean lacks the ``judgment'' necessary for the presidency, and Dick Gephardt's charge that Dean ``can't even tell the truth" about his own record. When The New Republic, a liberal magazine, says Dean was ``churlish and puny'' about the capture of Saddam, small wonder the cover of National Review, a conservative magazine, features a picture of Dean in full bellow and says: ``Please Nominate This Man.''

Considering that 34 congressional districts now held by Democrats voted for Bush in 2000, many Democrats fret about a ticket headed by Dean. But by now Democrats may be stuck with him because nominating him might be the least ruinous option. Not nominating him could give Democrats in 2004 a year akin to 1912 for the Republicans, when a seriously annoyed Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, ran a third party candidacy and finished second (behind Woodrow Wilson), ahead of the Republican nominee, who was the incumbent president, William Howard Taft.

Dean's dash from obscurity to dominance in the Democratic nomination contest may be the second-most impressive example of spontaneous political combustion in living memory. But consider what it is second to: George Wallace's 1968 achievement of getting his name on the presidential ballots of all 50 states.

Wallace had no new mobilization marvel like the Internet. And in 1968, many state laws, reflecting the two major parties' desire for an electoral oligopoly, were formidable barriers to ballot access for third party candidates. Ohio required the prohibitive -- or so it reasonably assumed -- number of 433,000 signatures. When Wallace supporters got about 100,000 more than that, an Ohio court declared Wallace's party ``fictional'' because, the court said, real parties develop from the bottom up. But that was precisely what was happening before the court's closed eyes. The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Wallace against Ohio.

California required only 66,000 signatures -- but signers had to fill out a two-page legal-size form to register as members of Wallace's new American Independent Party. More than 100,000 did.

A consequential third party candidate needs at least one of three things: a single burning issue, a vivid personality or a regional base (to facilitate a breakthrough in the Electoral College). Wallace had all three. Dean, a George Wallace for the campuses, lacks only a regional base (faculty clubs do not constitute a region).

Does Dean seem like the sort who might lose the nomination with a gracious smile and a graceful quip and retire to Vermont to practice medicine? By leading his true believers out of the Democratic Party and running as an independent, he might win more votes than the Democratic nominee. By now, the Democrats best option might be to take their medicine -- the doctor -- however bitter.