Tough Guys

Howard Dean had a roller coaster week. December 9, an eternity ago, Al Gore crowned him with a surprise endorsement. Five days later, U.S. forces surprised Saddam Hussein. Once again, Bush trumped Gore.

And last weekend, New Hampshire TV spots -- organized by associates of Dick Gephardt and John Kerry -- began warning that Americans live in "a new, dangerous world," in which "Howard Dean cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy." Dean, unrepentant, declared in his latest foreign policy address, that "the capture of Saddam has not made America safer." He just might be right.

Three other Democratic candidates then excoriated Dean. The conservative National Review's current cover shows Dean in full cry, with the headline, "Please Nominate This Man."

Dean remains the odds-on Democratic nominee. But can he possibly win in November?

Dean has already achieved something revolutionary. Grasping the potential of the Internet as a tool of mobilization and money-raising, his campaign has been self-confident enough to let supporters organize their own web activities and meet-ups, even as the candidate and his campaign manager, Joe Trippi, are clearly in charge.

This trust in volunteers, combined with Dean's principled opposition to Bush's foreign adventures, has energized an ever-growing base to open hearts and wallets. The Democratic Party has craved this grass-roots energy since, well, since George McGovern.

And there's the rub. Dean could certainly galvanize 45 percent of the electorate -- guaranteeing radical Republican dominance for a generation.

But is Dean just another McGovern? One difference: Dean generates excitement not just as a energizer of volunteers or war critic, but because he is tough. Recent losing Democratic nominees were diverse ideologically, from center-right (Carter, '80) to moderate liberal (Gore, '00) to liberal (Mondale, '84; Dukakis, '88) to left-liberal (McGovern, '72.) But all these losers had common trait: softness. Despite intermittently brave rhetoric, not one came across, first and foremost, as a fighter.

Dean does, like Harry Truman and John Kennedy. Much of this year's Democratic field comes across as inconstant and wimpy, in their timid criticisms of Republican radicalism.

The Democratic nominee in 2004 needs to be tough, for two huge reasons. First, George Bush is a tough-guy, and the nominee must be tough against Bush. Second, the world is a tougher place since 9/11, and the President of the United States had better be tough enough to protect us.

Tough, mind you, not reckless. This is Dean's whole point.

Amid all the cheap flag waving, Thanksgiving turkey-ops, jump-suit carrier stunts, and soon Iraqi show trials, there is a sober case that Bush's policies are making America and the world a less safe place.

But is Dean, as opposed to, say, Wesley Clark or John Kerry, a credible bearer of that message in November?

Beyond rallying the Democratic base, Dean would have to broaden that base by motivating current non-voters, at a scale not seen since 1936 (Franklin Roosevelt) or 1828 (Andrew Jackson). And he'd have to appeal to economically vulnerable swing voters.

Despite his attacks on Bush's foreign policy, Dean is fundamentally a moderate. He was a fiscally conservative, centrist governor.

Electoral dynamics have also changed since 1972. Unlike McGovern, Dean starts with a "blue-state" base of about 200 electoral votes almost impossible for a Democrat to lose. Think again about parallels with 1972: In that year, Nixon attempted to steal the Constitution with dirty tricks on the opposition, and there are instructive parallels with Bush. Further, in 1972, the Democratic Party insiders deserted the nominee, not vice-versa. This time, a Los Angeles Times poll shows a big plurality of Democratic National Committee members favoring Dean.

On the other hand, there are disconcerting similarities with 1972: an incumbent president with endless funds and no scruples; a prospective Democratic nominee who divides his party; and a dubious war, but not one so unpopular that it totally discredits the incumbent.

And on the crucial matter of swing-voter appeal, polls show Dean lagging behind an unnamed generic Democratic candidate in a match-up with Bush. No matter how well he does, his lack of foreign policy experience will dog Dean.

Ideally, the Democratic nominee would combine Dean's excitement and nerve with the military credibility of Wesley Clark. Alas, there's no such centaur. A Dean-Clark ticket wouldn't help much, because it could well underscore the contrast between the two, at Dean's expense.

Dean has impressively reinvented the politics of the Democratic primary. He had better show how he will rewrite the rules for November, too -- or Democrats should nominate someone else.

A similar version of this article appeared in Wednesday's Boston Globe.

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