The Magazine

Stop Dean

From the December 22, 2003 issue: Al Gore's endorsement signaled an pivotal moment for the Democratic party. Who can stop Dean now?

Dec 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 15 • By FRED BARNES
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AL GORE'S ENDORSEMENT of Howard Dean was anything but polite. A more diplomatic politician would have praised Dean's major rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination--Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, John Edwards, Wesley Clark--as esteemed colleagues and said they were all capable of being president (including one selected by Gore himself as his 2000 running mate). Instead the former vice president dismissed the whole bunch as "great candidates."

"Only one" candidate for the 2004 nomination, said Gore, had stepped forward as he had and come out early, loudly, and extravagantly against President Bush's decision to invade Iraq. "Our nation in its 200-year history has never made a worse foreign policy mistake," Gore said. And there was more. "We need to remake the Democratic party. We need to remake America."

Chances are, Gore's endorsement didn't sway many voters. But it did signify a pivotal moment for the Democratic party. The party has shifted. The antiwar, Bush-loathing, culturally liberal left now has the upper hand. Its dominance will likely culminate in Dean's nomination.

This is an event to be feared. Why? Because it will harm the Democratic party and lead to a general election campaign brimming with bitter assaults on the very idea of an assertive, morality-based American role in the world. And all this will play out as the war on terrorism, and the outcome in Iraq, hang in the balance. Gore's lurch to the left and Dean's likely nomination mean trouble.

Can Dean be stopped? A stop-Dean movement may appear quixotic, but it's not. Dean has no lock on Iowa, and a lead even as large as Dean's in New Hampshire is always precarious. Many Democrats are terrified that a nominee who vehemently opposes the war, likens the Bush administration to the Taliban, and plans to raise taxes on the middle class can't be elected. But they've been scared into silence by Dean's tough talk and momentum.

The worst offenders on this score are Dean's Democratic opponents. Dean is vulnerable on at least two issues, taxes and the war. But his rivals have confronted him effectively on neither. At the Democratic debate in New Hampshire last week, Kerry was asked by ABC's Ted Koppel why he hadn't raised his hand to show he thinks Dean could defeat Bush. What an opening! Kerry was free to insist, before the largest New Hampshire audience he'll ever have, that Bush would crucify Dean on the tax issue. But he lamely explained the reason he didn't raise his hand was his belief "in my vision for the country." Only when interviewed after the debate did Kerry attack Dean's tax hike proposal, declaring taxes the chief difference between himself and Dean. It was too late. No one was watching.

Lieberman and Gephardt, both backers of the war, have been no more aggressive in criticizing Dean on Iraq. Sure, they're wary of provoking boos and hisses from the Democratic activists who attend debates. But a plurality of Democratic voters in New Hampshire support the invasion of Iraq. Why not remind everyone that Dean would have left Saddam Hussein in power, with his mass graves, torture chambers, $25,000 stipends for families of Palestinian suicide bombers, ties to al Qaeda, and all?

Dean's foes have let him get away with insinuating that Bush may have been told about the 9/11 attacks beforehand by the Saudis. Dean raised this loony-left conspiracy theory during a radio interview on December 1 and called it "interesting." Kerry, Lieberman, Gephardt, and the others let it pass. On December 6 on "Fox News Sunday," Dean was asked about the theory. He said he didn't personally believe it, "but we don't know and it'd be nice to know" if it's true. Again, not a word from his rivals. And last week, after Koppel questioned Dean about it in the New Hampshire debate, Dean's opponents said nothing.

Two other Democrats are threatened by Dean and Gore: Bill and Hillary Clinton. Dean would undo Clinton's previous shift of the party to the center. Gore would make the prowar position unacceptable for a Democrat in 2008, when he challenges Hillary for the presidential nomination. Bill Clinton has warned Democrats against becoming "more liberal" and Hillary has backed the Iraq invasion. For themselves and their party, and because others haven't the moxie to step forward, it's time for the Clintons to take on Dean.

--Fred Barnes