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"While President Bush still has the support of the majority of Americans, there is a backlash," David Gergen, a former adviser to four U.S. presidents, told the Voice. "Dean is giving voice to the backlash. He's come to symbolize opposition to the president's policies in Iraq, and he's riding that wave very smartly."
Dean's fans thrill at the bravura of his attacks on Bush and his willingness to claim progressiveif not politically utopiansocial ground on issues like universal health care and civil unions for gays and lesbians. Pundits and journos love him too. The shortish, prickly doctor from Park Avenue with the barbed one-liners livens up the otherwise soporific Democratic field, and he sells papers.
And they all more or less agree that the conflict in Iraq was the ship that brought Dean this far. "The anti-war position is very important," said Maxine Isaacs, who teaches a class at Harvard's Kennedy School on the 2004 presidential race. "It could be a factor in who gets the nomination, the threshold question for leadership."
Last week 10,000 people showed up in New York's Bryant Park to size up the former governor. Under the yellow "Free Palestine" banner at the rear of the rally, the activists looked lonely. Or slightly lost. As he watched one of the opening acts, Jacques Englestein, a member of Jews Against the Occupation, allowed that Dean "is a step up from Bush."
"But there are a lot of caveats."
The candidate's anti-war stance may have filled the park, but the broader foreign policy debate to comeone of two areas, along with the economy, that Dean recently said "every president must get right"will be about more than just Iraq. And his positions on a variety of issues are far from clear. Part of this problem is Dean's remarkable early success. A bright light shines on his campaign, forcing his staffers to consider questions they might not have otherwise faced till the fall.
Usually at this point in the campaign, said Gergen, "it doesn't get into specifics. If that were the case, [John] Kerry would be doing much better."
Dean's campaign handlers will stay away from the trickiest foreign policy questions for now, an approach seasoned advisers think wise.
"If I were him, I'd veer away from the Middle East debate until he's forced into it," said one former Democratic adviser, who wished to remain anonymous. "He just doesn't need to talk about it." Dean was unavailable to be interviewed for this story, and his campaign staff could not answer a number of foreign policy questions submitted by the Voice.
Veering away from the Middle East, for instance, worries some progressives, who say that apart from his anti-war positions, Dean's foreign policy agenda doesn't represent any substantive ambition or new direction. In his statements on the region, they say, he has shown a willingness to follow fashion rather than conviction. These critics point to statements made by Dean about Saudi Arabia and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as proof that inside the insurgent there is an unimaginative centrist just waiting to get out.
When you're untested in foreign policy," said Nancy Soderberg, a former UN ambassador and foreign policy adviser to Bill Clinton, "you need to demonstrate that you know it. In this case, it will be Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war on terrorism." Soderberg says that Clinton "did this well" in 1992, with speeches challenging George H. Bush on U.S. policy toward Haiti, Bosnia, and China.
"You need to take the fight to the administration," she said. "Dean will have to stake out critical positions."
Saudi Arabia and several of its neighbors have provided Dean's campaign with what he must believe is such a position. In a June speech at the Council on Foreign Relations and one of the first times he detailed his foreign policy positions, Dean said "the United States must reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and we must have a president who is willing to confront the Iranians, the Syrians, the Saudis, and others who send money to Hamas, and finance a worldwide network of fundamentalist schools which teach small children to hate Americans, Christians, and Jews."
Dean's campaign confirmed that the argument set out abovethat American oil money finances terrorists, which is a good reason for oil independenceis indeed what he meant to say. Dean did not specify what roles Syria and Iran, which do not provide oil to the United States, play in that equation, but in more recent comments on the subject he usually just singles out Saudi Arabia.
"I find [it] problematic to talk only about the need to end dependence on Middle East oil," said Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies and frequent writer on the Middle East. Bennis, who agrees that there is a need to talk about the Saudi government's ties to militant groups, nonetheless finds Dean's statement "an easy way to talk about the region, and [an] easy [way] to slip into an anti-Arab approach to it."