War Trap

Dick Gephardt deserves Howard Dean. In a sense, he created him.

If anyone has personified the failure of the Democratic establishment to provide the party with a distinct profile during the Bush presidency, it's Gephardt. As House Democratic leader, Gephardt clung to Bush's Iraq policy until it all but unraveled over the past month. Gephardt's endorsement last fall of the administration's war resolution effectively derailed a bipartisan effort in the Senate to require the White House to win more international backing.

There was supposedly a method in this madness: By taking the war issue off the table, Gephardt argued, the Democrats could turn the midterm election campaign to questions of domestic policy, presumably their strong suit. We'll never know if this could have worked, because Gephardt and his fellow congressional leaders never developed a domestic message.

To millions of die-hard Democrats, it looked as if their party had sacrificed its principles on the altar of pragmatism and then had nothing pragmatic to offer. Neither conscience nor opportunism was given its due, and the rank-and-file was mightily indignant.

Howard Dean's genius was that he was the only serious Democratic presidential candidate to hear that rage and amplify it -- partly because he spent less time inside the Beltway and more on the road than any other candidate last year. Indignant himself about the Democrats' acquiescence in the war, he became the vehicle for the activists' indignation, too.

Dean's critics have argued that his antiwar vehemence makes him unelectable in a general election; they may be right. Democratic Leadership Council stalwarts Al From and Bruce Reed have raised the specter of another McGovernesque debacle -- the liberals, like locusts, returning at 32-year intervals to devour their own party.

But Democrats don't lose only when they move left as they did in 1972. In fact, Democrats also lose when liberals are so vexed with the party establishment and its nominee that they stay away from the polls, as they did in 1968 when the nomination went to Hubert Humphrey, who'd been the leading defender of Lyndon Johnson's war in Vietnam until just a few weeks before the November election.

Besides, Dean is a poor facsimile of the forthrightly progressive George McGovern. On matters economic, he's often a model DLC centrist. Asked on Meet The Press last month about supporting a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, he answered, "I go back and forth on that one."

If that's liberalism, Calvin Coolidge was a pinko.

The candidate whom Dean more nearly resembles is the 1968 antiwar insurgent, Eugene McCarthy. Like McCarthy (and unlike McGovern), Dean directs much of his fire at fellow Democrats' backing for a questionable war. Like McCarthy, his supporters are overwhelmingly white middle-class professionals. Like McCarthy, he is more moderate than his supporters think he is, and surely more moderate than they are. And like McCarthy, he is likely not the strongest candidate the Democrats could put forth in November.

But how much like Humphrey's candidacy are those of the current Democratic hawks, Gephardt and Joe Lieberman in particular? The radicalism of George W. Bush has concentrated Democratic minds, but are there liberals who would still hesitate to support a pro-war nominee even against Bush, as their forebearers hesitated to support Humphrey even against Richard Nixon?

A look at some numbers from last month's MoveOn "primary" suggests that might be the case. The left-leaning, antiwar online organization polled its members on their presidential preferences, and a clear plurality of voters favored Dean. Just as important, however, MoveOn also asked its voters which Democratic candidates they could enthusiastically support if those candidates won the nomination. Dean ran first here, too, with 86 percent backing, but the pro-war candidates fared notably less well. John Edwards came in fourth with 56 percent, Gephardt fifth with 53 percent and Lieberman eighth with 42 percent. (Al Sharpton ran ninth: MoveOn voters clearly thought him an implausible president, and Lieberman, an implausible Democrat.) The surprise was John Kerry, who ran a strong second with 75 percent. MoveOn voters -- a significant, if not necessarily representative, sample of liberal Democrats -- seem to have established a hierarchy of pro-war candidates. At the bottom is Lieberman, the most conservative candidate in the field; then Gephardt, the architect of the party's support for Bush's war; then Edwards, a not very critical supporter of that war; and finally, at the top, Kerry, who managed both to vote for the war and criticize it simultaneously. Some might call that incoherence, but of all the Democrats, Kerry is probably the best able to win support from all quadrants of the party. In message and manner, Kerry often still fails to connect with his listeners. But if he can put his own house in order, he's the candidate best positioned to unite a party that's not been this angry at itself since 1968.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of the Prospect.

This column originally appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.

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