When Howard Dean was still on top of the world looking down on the Democratic presidential nomination, the indispensable columnist Mark Steyn, writing in the Wall Street Journal, dubbed the good doctor the figurehead of the "bike path left."
This was a reference to Dean's decision to leave the Episcopalian Church because his parish had opposed his plan to build a local bike path. As Steyn noted, what made this controversy remarkable, considering the recent dust-ups within the Anglican community, was that this was not in fact a gay bike path, nor a path one biked on the way to a gay marriage. No, this was just an ordinary bike path, and, for all the theological issues involved in the controversy, Dean's church might just as well have been a McDonald's or a Jiffy Lube. It was just, in Dean's words, a "big fight." "I was fighting to have public access to the waterfront, and we were fighting very hard.."
Steyn contrasted Dean's readiness to rumble about a bike path with his more leisurely attitude toward war. When Saddam was captured, Dean had said, "I suppose that's a good thing." When the butchers Uday and Qusay were killed in a raid, Dean said, "The ends don't justify the means." About Osama bin Laden, Dean explained in 2003, "I don't think it makes a lot of difference" if he's tried in the Hague or in the place where he orchestrated the murder of thousands of Americans. Asked if the Hague would be good for Saddam, too, Dean airily replied, "Suits me fine."
In short, about the war on terror Dean was dismissively blase. About bike paths he was a pit bull.
This is all relevant because Howard Dean has emerged from the ashes of John Kerry's immolation to run the Democratic party.
Interestingly, many elected Democrats insist he will not lead the party. Sen. Joseph Biden, for example, explained: "No party chairman has ever made a bit of difference in the public perception. . He's not going to have a policy role."
So, apparently, Dean will be little more than the guy who calls the repairman when the DNC's Xerox machine is out of toner. So why did the party's nominal leaders oppose his campaign to be DNC chair? That Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid failed to stop Dean suggests that the base marches to his drum, not theirs.
Perhaps Pelosi and Reid recognized that the party's best hopes do not reside in rallying left-wingers who use "summer" as a verb. The essential characteristic of the Bike Path Left is its passion for lifestyle issues. Dean was famously the governor of Vermont, where lifestyle has become a religion for its urbane yet fashionably rustic citizenry. The flinty old Vermont of yore has given way to the Vermont of Architectural Digest and wealthy transplants from New York and Boston. Dean represented this transformation perfectly. In the Vermont statehouse, Calvin Coolidge's sober, thrifty visage gazes from his official portrait to Dean's. While all the other governors dress like bankers, Dean chose to pose as if for the cover of an L.L. Bean catalog, studiously relaxed on the shore of a pond in an open-collared flannel shirt, khakis and racy hiking boots. Previous governors probably liked the great outdoors, too, but they didn't think their job was about validating lifestyles.
Simply because the BPL cherishes lifestyle politics doesn't mean it is always laid-back. Dean is, famously, a man of considerable rage. Just this week he remarked that he "hates Republicans." (Presumably all of those bumper stickers in Burlington proclaiming that "Hate is not a family value" will have to be scraped off.) And as the original bike path fight demonstrates, his passion about the importance of lifestyle trumps his faith in more traditional arrangements. Dean signed the first same-sex partnership law and is now a vocal advocate for gay marriage. This isn't a petty issue like a bike path. It's a very important one to voters on both sides. Indeed, gay marriage might well have won the election for George W. Bush.
Which is why some Democrats fear that Dean will remake their party as the champion of the Burlington state of mind. Defenders call him a "pragmatist" who governed as a "centrist." They always leave out that a Vermont centrist is someone who cares about the property values of limousine liberals. Nonetheless, Dean and his supporters say they're serious about reaching out to more traditional voters.
But his bike path passion appears to be elsewhere. In a fascinating report from the DNC's recent meeting, Tony Carnes of Christianity Today recounts how Dean sees his party's failings as nothing but a "language" problem. "We learned in the last election that language makes an enormous difference," he explained dispassionately.
Later, at another gathering, Gloria Nieto, vice chair of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Caucus, broke into sobs, wondering aloud whether the Democrats would remain a welcoming home for lesbians. Dean immediately "leaped off the stage into the audience to hug her," writes Carnes. "With a sob of his own catching his voice, he brought the audience to standing ovation" when he declared, "That's why I am a Democrat."
Well, that and bike paths.