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By Russ Smith | Posted 2/23/2005

The giddy attitude today among members of what newly elected Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean calls the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” is an entertaining, if puzzling, development. Dean’s victory was a harsh rebuke to the centrist Democrats who were relieved at this time last year when John Kerry, a Beltway insider who was considered “more electable” than any of his competitors, thrashed the former Vermont governor in the primaries. Even Kerry partisans now admit that their candidate ran a lackluster campaign, relying more on the virulent hatred of George W. Bush in much of the country rather than a compelling reason for changing presidents.

Dean will certainly prove a more articulate spokesman for the party than his predecessor, the tongue-tied Terry McAuliffe, but as Bush has proven, a mastery of linguistics isn’t a prerequisite for political success. The real significance of Dean’s quick comeback to national prominence is that, for better or worse, he won’t acquiesce to the worrywart strategy of tacking to the middle—like Hillary Clinton has tried on abortion and Iraq. Dean has pledged not to preside over a “Republican-lite” agenda, and at this point there’s no reason not to take him at his word.

Less believable is Dean’s promise that he won’t run for president again in 2008, especially if his vilification of the opposition—on Jan. 29 he told a forum in New York that “I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for, but I admire their discipline and their organization”—is thwarted by establishment Democrats.

At this point, 2008 is shaping up to be a battle between the Clinton machine and Dean’s faction. Both could be left on the side of the road.

A cover article in New York magazine’s Feb. 21 issue (“The Once and Future President Clinton”) wasn’t particularly notable—author Jennifer Senior gushes about her state’s junior senator—except for one quote from longtime Clinton adviser Harold Ickes. Reacting to Hillary Clinton’s well-publicized speech contending that common ground can be found among the pro-choice and pro-life camps, Ickes said, “I’m sorry, but when push comes to fucking shove—not to turn a pun—my belief is that life begins at conception. And I think Hillary understands how hot-button this issue is for Democrats.” Point to the Dean crowd.

If Clinton really believes that “red state” voters are going to change their opinion of her because of an acknowledgment that abortion ought to be “rare”—but still legal—rather than a form of birth control, she’s got a screw loose. Additionally, while her husband is accepted by many as this generation’s top political savant, it’s debatable how valuable he’ll be to her expected campaign. He seems to genuinely enjoy the role of elder statesman, and who knows whether he has the juice to compete on a necessarily nasty partisan level.

Early returns from the Hollywood fund-raising/publicity industry also aren’t encouraging. Billionaire David Geffen recently told a 92nd Street Y crowd, according to the Feb. 17 Drudge Report, “[Hillary] can’t win, and she’s an incredibly polarizing figure. And ambition is just not a good enough reason.”

But the rejoicing of left-wing pundits and voters over Dean’s ascension is not entirely realistic either. Writing in the March 7 Nation, John Nichols was ecstatic about the DNC decision, claiming that Dean will have a galvanizing effect on organizing the Bush resistance across the country. He wrote: “Frustrated grassroots activists and donors see [Dean] as the tribune of their antiwar, anticorporate, and anti-Bush views. Big thinkers see him as an idea filter who understands the potential of neglected issues and strategies. State and local party officials recognize him as a former governor who understands that Democrats can compete in all fifty states.”

Three cheers for enthusiasm, but can someone besides a besotted Deaniac explain how an “antiwar, anticorporate, anti-Bush” presidential candidate is going to conduct a 50-state campaign? First, what a lot of Democrats forget is that Bush—the most reviled Republican since Richard Nixon—won’t be on ballot in 2008. Second, the politics of The Nation (or the New York Times’ Paul Krugman, who’s also hailed Dean’s chairmanship as a boon to the “fighting moderates”) have virtually no chance of succeeding in any “red” states and, if too vituperative, could flip battlegrounds like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania to the GOP.

The early betting has to be that both Dean and Hillary Clinton flame out, and the emerging face of the party will be a Southerner.

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