The Democrats reach back to a McGovernite past

Ross Mackenzie
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Posted: Jan 01, 2004 12:00 AM

Democrats hungering after the presidency have awakened recently to three smell-the-coffee surprises: the economic turnaround, the Gore endorsement of Howard Dean and the capture of Saddam Hussein.

The turnaround, if it lasts, deprived them of one of their two major anticipated issues. Gore's endorsement of the most leftie wannabe except perhaps Dennis Kucinich or Al Sharpton reminded everyone just how ideologically extreme Gore is. Saddam's capture removed the other major anticipated arrow from the Democratic quiver - and led to renewed Democratic division that can help only the Republican enterprise next year.

Even a generation ago, foreign policy was not the defective gene it now seems to be swimming around in the Democratic pool. Yet since the triumph of peacenikism in the nomination of George McGovern, the Democrats have proved unable to recover fully - and now, in the prospective nomination of Dean, they are reaching back to what they were.

Dean did not scramble to the top of the Democratic pack by being a conservative or even a moderate. Despite the fawning coverage of his campaign by the "dirigiste" mainline press, he's simply a meaner, more in-your-face McGovern.

He remains likely to win the Democratic nomination because he so closely mirrors the leftism of Democratic voters who turn out in primaries. Dean probably can win the nomination but not the general election. Joe Lieberman, the only moderate among the major Democratic contenders, perhaps could win the general election but is too moderate to win his party's nomination.

"Deanomics" (Dean's word) equates nicely to McGovernomics. For instance, Dean has proclaimed loudly and often that he would repeal every penny of the Bush tax cuts. Further, his cry for universal health care would mean the "de facto" nationalization of 14 percent of the economy. And all the while he calls himself a "fiscal conservative."

Yet it is foreign policy - security policy, defense policy - where the Democrats generally and Dean particularly are not rowing with both oars in the water.

Almost all the top Democrats said Saddam had or was trying to get weapons of mass destruction; then they implied they were misled or never took that position in the first place. Most voted for going after Saddam but later opposed (except for Richard Gephardt and Lieberman) appropriating $87 billion to keep on and to rebuild Iraq.

Al Gore termed war to remove Saddam "a catastrophic mistake." Retired general Wesley Clark termed war "a strategic blunder" and "a massive bait-and-switch operation"; he opposed the later $87-billion appropriation. Dean said he would have voted against both war and the $87 billion.

Saddam's capture produced still another squirreling operation on the part of the Democrats as they tried to get around their past positions. They sought to cover their tracks, too. Now the general Democratic position on Iraq seems to read something like this:

"Let's be peaceable. Let's have more muscular multilateralism and get more international involvement - the UN, NATO, or (Hillary's view) a special group of international overseers. Let's entitle our key allies in the rebuilding effort, such as Germany, Russia, France and the others so adamant about not deposing Saddam. In Dean's words, let's take "the American label off the war." Oh, and regarding Saddam himself, let's make sure he gets a fair trial and let's think twice (at least) about giving him the death penalty."

In his ballyhooed "major address" on foreign policy two days after Saddam's apprehension, Dean was forthrightly obstinate. He insisted Saddam's capture did not cause him to change his views about war in Iraq to get rid of him. And he said, now famously: "The capture of Saddam has not made America safer."

Lieberman, who has grown from the wacky leftism of his college days when I was in school with him, puts it perhaps best about Dean: "If Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power today, not in prison, and the world would be a much more dangerous place." Dean, he says, is living in "a spider hole of denial" and: "The American people will wonder if they will be safer with him as president."

Lieberman's indictment of Dean, Gore, et al. goes further:

"The Democratic bird doesn't fly with one wing. It needs all its wings. ... (Dean and Gore want to take the party back to a time when it was) too often in the political wilderness. ... This campaign for the Democratic nomination is fundamentally a referendum within our party about whether we're going to build on the Clinton transformation in our party. ... I believe that Howard Dean has endorsed a series of policies that would take the party back to where it was before Clinton transformed us in 1992. ... I am not going to stand by and let this party that I've belonged to all my life be taken back to where it was..."

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Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen terms Lieberman "a moderate in a party in no mood for moderation. It seeks the head of George Bush and it seems determined to lose its own in the effort."

On foreign policy especially, the rise of Howard Dean makes Cohen's case. The Democrats need to put at least a second oar in the water and row hard away from the very real cataract looming ahead.