Party Favor

Based on the reaction presidential hopeful Howard Dean drew from the approximately 4,000 people at his Saturday speech in Falls Church, Va., there's a lot of anger here -- as elsewhere -- about the way the Bush administration is running the country. After Dean counted off the reasons Bush cited for going to war in Iraq, the crowd shouted, "Liar!" (with reference to Bush, of course, not Dean). Dean repeatedly referred to "Ken Lay and the boys." He told those assembled that "this time the person with the most votes" will win the White House. And he brought up GOP names sure to rile Democrats: Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.), Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Dean also hit all the right notes in reaching out to the Democratic base. He talked about the importance of the minimum wage, education spending, health care, the environment and a foreign policy based on something other than "petulance." He said he wants to restore America's sense of community. He praised the Democrats' core constituencies of women, African Americans, Latinos and labor. "I want an America based on hope, not an America based on fear," he declared.

Dean didn't criticize any of the other eight Democratic candidates, which is a good thing. (Of course, now that he's the presumed front-runner instead of the insurgent spoiler, he doesn't really need to.) The California recall election is providing an excellent example of why party unity is so important. Republicans are divided over whether to support Arnold Schwarzenegger or one of the other dozens of candidates. Democrats are rallying around Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. And guess what? Though the election is still several weeks away, Bustamante is leading with 35 percent of the vote, according to a Los Angeles Times poll. Schwarzenegger has 22 percent of the vote, while three other Republicans together have 25 percent. No wonder Bill Simon bowed to party pressure by dropping out over the weekend.

But Dean did make a subtle jab at Bill Clinton and Al Gore. "If you make me the Democratic nominee," Dean said, "I'll make you proud to vote Democratic again." OK, it's true that many of us were unhappy with Clinton's personal behavior (which we didn't fully know about in either the 1992 or 1996 elections), but as a president, Clinton's record is much stronger than Bush's has been. And while Gore may not have been Mr. Excitement, enough Democrats did vote for him in 2000 to put him in the White House.

The zeal with which Dean attacks Bush has drawn a lot of fed-up Democrats into his camp. He says he has 20,000 people working for him in Texas and plans to register 3 million to 4 million new voters. Attacking Bush is exactly where Dean needs to keep his focus. Turning that fire and anger on other Democrats -- past or present candidates -- won't help him in the long run. Plus, as Dean said Saturday, voters want to hear about what your plan is, not about how bad the other guy is.

There's a lot for the Democratic Party to be proud of. It reaches out to the broadest number of people with a message that embraces what is great about our country and a vision of what could make it better. Yet when Dean says he will make voters proud to vote Democratic again, it almost sounds as if he's trying to make voters ashamed of their past support for party candidates. It's unfortunate that he undercut his more powerful, positive message on Saturday with that one line. Because no matter who the party's nominee is next year, he or she will get my vote -- and I'll cast it proudly.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.