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The Democrats' Dean Dilemma

From the December 29, 2003 / January 5, 2004 issue: Will the Democratic center speak out?

Dec 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 16 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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As we say, we don't understand how a frontrunning, major-party presidential candidate could have come to think like this. The most interesting theory we've heard--and it's only a theory; no one can know for sure--is that sometime in the 1990s, French intelligence agents snuck into Dean's bedroom in Burlington and brainwashed the poor man.

But even if true, that still wouldn't explain the corollary mystery: How could it be that the very "Washington Democrats" who so recently "fell meekly into line" over war with Iraq are now just as meekly acquiescing in the institutional conquest of their party by a presidential candidate who openly derides them for it--and who openly repudiates, in the process, foreign policy views to which the vast majority of them remain personally and politically committed?

What genuinely serious figure in the national Democratic party, for example, believes that the United States must never undertake an overseas military initiative unless Howard Dean's strictly delineated conditions have first been met (or unless Kofi Annan has "given us permission")? Men like Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs might believe such stuff. But Sachs, one of the 15 "distinguished experts" now advising the Dean campaign on foreign policy, is, not to put too fine a point on it, a crank. The war with Iraq, he says, was "really about" control of Middle Eastern oil, consistent with a long-ago-hatched plot by a cabal of neoconservative defense intellectuals. "We need to leave, not reconstruct," Sachs told a teach-in audience as recently as December 17. "Don't buy their claim that now we're there we have to make it work. It can't work!" And "we cannot make it work," and "we need to just get out."

Democrats like Clinton administration national security adviser Anthony Lake and Carter administration CIA director Stansfield Turner, by contrast, cannot possibly believe such arrant, irresponsible nonsense. So why, then, have they, too, seen fit--just like crazy Jeffrey Sachs--to lend their names and reputations to the Dean crusade?

Why, for that matter, is it only now, when it may already be too late to deny him the nomination, that Dean's intra-party rivals have finally (and falteringly) begun to offer Democratic voters a sustained and pointed warning about the defense-policy program he's outlined--and about the general-election risks that program clearly entails?

Why, come to think of it, should even so partisan, politically sophisticated, and overwhelmingly popular a Democrat as Hillary Clinton have so far proved unwilling to dissociate herself from the outlandishness of foreign-policy Deanism? Judging from her own recent major address on the subject--delivered at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, on the same day her husband's would-be legatee was speaking in Los Angeles--Senator Clinton's views could not be less like those of Howard Dean.

In the best interests of her party--and her nation--shouldn't Senator Clinton say so? Shouldn't she and all the other "Washington Democrats" at the very least refuse to surrender without a fight?

--David Tell, for the Editors