Are we so sure about Dean?

William F. Buckley
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Posted: Jan 08, 2004 12:00 AM
The word is out that U.S. conservatives hope ardently for the nomination of Howard Dean as Democratic candidate for president. The glow fires up with the proposition: Who on Earth could be easier to beat? So if you want the re-election of George W. Bush, then send a nickel to the Howard Dean Machine.

Here are some second thoughts on this epiphany:

Yes, it is probably safe to assume that Dean will lose the election. He puts too great a strain on us with his novel ideas about how to redirect America's destiny. He would of course end the war in Iraq and rid us of any temptation to venture forth elsewhere. He would undo the last tax bill and restructure the tax code with more of this and less of that, and get rid of special interests.

For a while, Howard Dean stood out as the most vituperative critic of George Bush, but other Democrats, observing the success of Dean as Maximum Critic, began to check in with criticisms similarly sharp. Gen. Wesley Clark, asked on television whether the candidates now running had enough experience in the military and in international affairs to serve as president, replied: Everyone running has more experience than President Bush. This tells us nothing about the experience of Bush, but a good deal about the mood in heated Democratic quarters.

Republicans who look at the Dean phenomenon should ask more than, How can somebody as cuckoo as Dean hope to get elected? Yes, the election of Dean will probably not happen. Why? Because for him to win a majority would presuppose something on the nature of a national convulsion. These things happen, but usually they are brought on by great civil disorders. If there was unemployment on the scale of the 1930s, radical moments might follow. If in the next six months the Mideast rises and turns against us and terror and strife are everywhere, voters might be expected to look for a dramatic alternative to Bush, and Howard Dean is certainly that.

But we should ponder other matters. The United States is doing pretty well. One mad cow can get the whole of America's attention, diverted from quotidian concern over Michael Jackson's pedophilia. Yes ... Howard Dean has this appeal. It is owing not only to natural oratorical gifts. There is an edge in Dean that is saying: To hell with everything. To hell with all the accepted ornaments of 21st-century life; I say it's a lousy life we are leading. And the cheers rise. Not from people suffering from disease or starvation or low draft card numbers.

There is abroad what Herbert Agar, writing in the late '30s, denoted as an anarchic passion to smash -- the kind of satisfaction people get from smashing the icons. Someone told Dr. Dean that he had smashed one icon too many, so he discovered God last week. People will still forgive occasional bows in the direction of our Maker, but the passion-to-smash itch is there. Probably there is no way for Mr. Bush to satisfy those special impulses. It would be out of character for him to streak across the plain late in the afternoon before meeting with his supporters in Texas. He will have to let Dr. Dean collect for his own political stand all the stridencies of dissent.

Howard Dean won't attract a majority of the voters, one supposes. But what about the alarum raised by his threat to secede? He has said that l.5 million of his supporters aren't going to vote cow-like for another Democratic candidate if ... if what? If he is rejected?

If Dr. Dean decides to go it alone, he is free to run on a third-party ticket. If he did so, he would of course damage the Democratic Party. But the damage would go further. There is much to be gained from the two-party system. If the second party is reduced to true impotence, the republic suffers. A good working majority is better than a majority so heavy as to eliminate opposition.

And there is always the possibility that Howard Dean will win. After all, in recent weeks a man successfully negotiated Niagara Falls.