The Dean dilemma

Posted: Dec 22, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

Most Americans and, indeed, most Democrats are hardly aware of Howard Dean's existence. The national polls that have propelled him well ahead of any other candidate still give him support from only one of four Democrats (slipping slightly after Hussein's capture). He runs far behind Bush in any one-on-one poll. However, the McAuliffe-shortened primary campaign is all in Dean's favor.

If Dean is the clear winner in Iowa and New Hampshire, he would seem assured of the nomination. Even if he is upset in Iowa by Rep. Richard Gephardt, it is hard to imagine Gephardt with enough money in the bank to battle Dean down the long primary election trail. Sen. John Kerry is seen as the only Democrat with the potential wherewithal to contest the money-heavy Dean, but Kerry's performance has been one of the year's great political disappointments.

As the economic outlook brightens, Democrats depend on the situation in Iraq to defeat Bush. That only deepens the party's dilemma. Surveys taken after Saddam Hussein's capture for the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll show just 37 percent of Democrats think Iraq was worth going to war. But among all other voters, such support reached 70 percent (amounting to 61 percent nationally if Democrats are included).

Joe Trippi last week said the anti-Dean ad on foreign policy "panders to the worst in voters." Actually, the Democrats and Dean are out of step on the issue they think will move the nation. That makes it even more difficult to stop Howard Dean.