Is this country closely divided - or what?

Posted: Sep 18, 2003 12:00 AM

Howard Dean and John Kerry, among other Democratic presidential aspirants, are stumping key states deploring President Bush's "lies." Leftie Dems, the heart of the Democratic constituency and hence the ones who generally select Democratic nominees, seem swoony about Dean - now 21 points ahead of Kerry in, for instance, New Hampshire.

For his part, with a public mood darkened by continuing American deaths in Iraq and (now) 22 consecutive months of fewer American jobs, Bush's national rating stands at the lowest point in two years.

More of this, and 2004 may not prove much different from the 2000 election, which but for his losses in a single state such as West Virginia, Florida or his home base Tennessee, would have given us as president alpha male Al Gore.

Congress, too, sends the message: Is this country closely divided - or what?

Yes, it's early, and practically none of the Democrats can argue he (or she) has reached anything approaching national recognition: Recent polls indicate two-thirds of the voters cannot name even a single candidate among the Democratic Nine. Because he ran with Gore last time out, Joe Lieberman leads the Democratic field in a number of national recognition polls. But he stands third in New Hampshire and lower in Iowa, and given the front-loaded setup of the forthcoming blunderbuss process, he remains a dark horse to win the nomination.

Nor does it help that he is just about the only Democrat speaking any sense.

Lieberman is an unabashed moderate in a party of ideological termagants. He terms his opponents soft on security and stale on domestic policy, and says "outdated extremes" fostered by the "far ideological left" will not return the Democratic Party to the White House. "That path will not solve the challenges of our time and it could well send us Democrats back to the political wilderness for a long time. ... Old Democratic policies like higher taxes and weakness on defense are not the solution."

His party colleagues on the campaign trail hate him for it.

Yet as The Washington Post's David Von Drehle correctly notes, "The left is once again a driving force in the (Democratic) Party. They do not call themselves 'liberals' anymore; the preferred term today is 'progressives.' But in other ways, they are much the same slice of the electorate that dominated the Democratic Party from 1972 to the late 1980s: anti-war, pro-environment, suspicious of corporations, and supportive of federal social services." The far left has the energy, and that energy is moving Dean - a former physician and governor of Vermont, for Heaven's sake - to the fore.

Remember Vermont? It's the nation's only state recognizing homosexual civil unions, a status encouraged by the pro-homosexual-marriage Dean when he was governor. It's the land of Patrick ("The Worst Senator") Leahy and Republican turncoat Sen. James Jeffords - as well as of Congressman Bernie Sanders, the solitary self-proclaimed socialist in the House.

Dean and Bob Graham are the only former governors seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in an hour when former governors (e.g., Wilson, Coolidge, Roosevelt, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Dubya were or had been governors; since 1900 only Harding and Kennedy have gone directly from the Senate to the presidency) have proved far more successful presidential aspirants. And despite his protestations of centrism, terming pacifist, government-takeover, high-tax Dean a conservative or centrist is like saying - in the words of one who knows him well - "you were the most chaste woman in a Texas whorehouse."

So it won't likely be Lieberman. Nor drones Gephardt or Graham - though possibly Graham will be a vice-presidential pick because he represents the must-win Florida. Nor the Rev. Al Sharpton or former Illinois senator Carol Moseley Braun. Nor equivocators Edwards or Kerry - the latter oddly ambivalent for a rich senator apparently afflicted with Schwarzenegger's Disease, the inability to be straightforward and clear.

Which leaves Dean, now rumored to be flirting with Wesley Clark to become his running mate - Clark having been the general in place when we won the war for Kosovo. Unless, finally, kittenish Hillary (Hillary a coquette?, toying with no and yes, goes with Dean or decides that now is her hour.

If the economy doesn't rebound big-time, and/or if Saddamites keep picking off American troops, Hillary or Dr. Dean could galvanize the left as perhaps never before, and hardly more than a year from now we could find ourselves in the middle of a 2000 reprise.