The New Electable Howard Dean

Evolution of a Not-So-Radical Contender

Howard Dean waxed magnanimous Sunday, reacting to the broadly welcomed announcement of Saddam Hussein's arrest. Progress in Iraq could be terrible news for a Democrat running actively on the premise that the war there was wrong.

"This is . . . a great day for America," Dean said, adding that President George W. Bush deserved a "day of celebration." Hussein's arrest, he said, underscored the need to more quickly return sovereignty of Iraq to its people.

His Democratic opponents were not so generous, at least not to him.

illustration: Ward Sutton

Joseph Lieberman moved to inject some life into his wilting campaign with a little domestic bellicosity, saying, "If Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power today, not in prison." The Connecticut senator, his hawkish confidence now restored, also called for Hussein to stand trial in the United States, so that he might face the death penalty. John Kerry joined Lieberman in suggesting that their support for the war was now vindicated.

There were no signs, at press time, that much had changed in Iraq. In the last two days car bombs killed 27 Iraqis. An American soldier was killed Sunday while defusing a roadside bomb.

And the Lieberman and Kerry attacks suggest that despite the dramatic capture of Hussein, the Democrats in this primary season are still dealing with the other news—the emergence of Dean as clear front-runner.

In the past few weeks, Dean has built a commanding lead over his rivals, buoyed most forcefully by the endorsement from Al Gore. Gore's support carried with it the imprimatur of the Democratic respectability that Dean badly needed. Polls showed that after that announcement, Dean became the favorite of Democratic voters nationwide, and importantly, the leader among those in Iowa and New Hampshire.

This month, Dean's campaign has moved past the single issue that his critics said made him unelectable—his anti-war rhetoric. While his innovative and successful fundraising strategy and his healthy poll numbers have been tracked for some time, his policy proposals have been somehow obscured by the very passion that first attracted the crowds.

Officially, his campaign maintains it was never concerned that Dean was becoming too closely identified with his opposition to the invasion of Iraq. The war, said Jay Carson, a Dean spokesperson,"is just a metaphor for standing up for what you believe in."

But any misunder-standing was largely Dean's fault. On a number of fronts—including foreign policy and the economy, the two areas that Dean has suggested are vital to a successful candidacy—the campaign had yet to offer a vision, save some very broad strokes. So in December, Dean looked to define himself, delivering major policy speeches on race, national security, and education. Later this week, he plans to talk about the economy.

Prior to Hussein's capture, and indeed before Gore's endorsement, Dean realized that to navigate the waters of 2004, he was going to need a bigger boat.

Dean's speech Monday in Los Angeles was his first serious foreign policy foray since September, when he wrote an editorial on national security in The Arizona Republic. "The capture of Saddam is a good thing, which I hope very much will keep our soldiers safer," he told the audience in L.A. "But the capture of Saddam has not made America safer."

Stressing that his position on the war had not changed, Dean moved on to the matter that he surely hopes will move voters come election time: national security, and the threats still posed by weapons of mass destruction.

The former governor also devoted time to what one of his advisers called "a foreign policy that brings hope and opportunity to people around the world," and included his global initiative on HIV/AIDS, and debt relief for poor nations.

Taken together, it was a radical revision of Bush Abroad, carefully structured to include all the relevant vocabulary. Dean knows that WMDs and terrorism are threats that scare Americans; instead of ignoring this, he sought to prove that he could be tough, too.

"I will call on the most powerful armed forces the world has ever known to ensure the security of this nation," he said.

He rolled out his "kitchen cabinet," a mix of Clinton-era diplomats, former generals, and other think tank types, including the Brookings Institution's Ivo Daalder. The names will hearten moderates, and assuage the Democratic leadership, worried that the presumptive nominee was a bit on the crunchy side.

In an interview on Saturday with The Washington Post, Dean offered other details, promising shifts of U.S. policy towards North Korea, Palestine, and Iraq. He advocated bilateral talks with the regime of Kim Jong Il, and embraced the Geneva Accord as a basis for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He also called for immediate elections in Iraq to replace the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council there.

His thoughts on Iraq were most anticipated, and not just because of recent events. Candidates like Clark and Kerry have flaunted their experience, both as soldiers and participants in a number of international conflicts. Dean has no real foreign policy experience, and has displayed a lack of depth when answering questions about post-war Iraq.

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