With 50 art galleries for each of its three electoral votes, Vermont is more a vacation destination than a presidential launching pad. So, Howard Dean, despite being the cover story on two weekly news magazines, is unlikely to be the first Vermont officeholder to ascend to the White House. Still, even failure could give him a major place in U.S. political history.
The gutsy Dean seems to be emerging as the “anti-Bush” of 2003-04 U.S. politics. He’s pumping candor into a presidential race otherwise mired in Washington establishment-speak. This could be the key litmus test -- for George W. Bush as well as Dean -- because failing presidencies frequently attract such a nemesis, and the wounded incumbent often fails to survive.
Three examples stand out. Independent Ross Perot became the “anti-Bush” who helped defeat the current president’s father in 1992. Newt Gingrich, who became House speaker in 1995, was the “anti-Clinton” who temporarily wounded the incumbent in 1994. The most relevant example may be Eugene McCarthy, the tweedy, intellectual U.S. senator from Minnesota who became the “anti-LBJ” of 1968, forcing an earlier deceitful, cowboy- hatted Texas war president, Lyndon B. Johnson, into retirement.
None of the three ever became president, but two of the three, Perot and McCarthy, raised issues and criticisms that helped defeat a president. Dean could follow suit.
To be sure, a case can be made for Dean getting the Democratic nomination and even winning. Four of the last five presidents -- Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and the current President Bush -- had been state governors or ex-governors. No sitting U.S. senator has won since John F. Kennedy in 1960 -- hardly good news for presidential aspirants John F. Kerry, John Edwards, Bob Graham and Joe Lieberman -- and you have to go back to 1880 to find a sitting member of the House who won the presidency, a discouraging indicator for 2004 hopefuls Richard A. Gephardt and Dennis J. Kucinich. Being able to kick Washington works better than being part of it.
As for his tactical shrewdness, Dean has only begun to prove himself. Logically enough, he has moved to the front of the Democratic pack by playing to the rising anti-Bush sentiment among party regulars. But both of his key themes -- Bush’s Iraqi war policies and misstatements and his upper-bracket-tilted tax cuts -- will have to be polished as cutting issues to gain centrist swing voters.
If the November 2004 election were speeded up and held in a couple of weeks, with Dean as the Democrats’ nominee, my guess is that even though Bush has been sinking in the polls, he would still beat Dean by something like 57% to 43%. The former Vermont governor might only carry three or four states.
But courage and a willingness to buck conventional wisdom count for a lot, and if Dean can “centrify” his message while maintaining its bold, steel-toed emphasis on Bush’s war policy and rhetoric and the GOP’s fat-cat tax pandering, he can broaden his appeal. Moreover, he can reduce Bush’s attractiveness in the process.
At some point, Dean will have to consider slowly zeroing in on one issue he has so far left out. This is the extent to which Bush has reshaped the Republican Party from a party of mainstream churches into a 2000 electoral coalition unprecedentedly grouped around and influenced by Southern evangelical and fundamentalist voters and their wackier leaders.
Part of the Bush weakness is dynastic. The 43rd president is reenacting a lot of the biases, favoritisms and mismanagements displayed by his father, and they’re too innate to be easily shed. Here are the big three, if Democrats can figure out how to play them:
Dean is correct about the administration’s 9/11 and war-related vulnerabilities. After four decades of Bush ties to the Persian Gulf, the family is so interlocked with the local royal families, banks and big-money crowd that duplicity and conflicts of interest abound. The result is White House secrecy and deceit. Key Saudis seem to have had dealings with some of the 9/11 hijackers, but the White House, pulled both ways, can’t push. One reason for invading Iraq, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, was to be able to base U.S. forces there to get them out of a shaky Saudi Arabia. Obviously, that wouldn’t have flown with U.S. public opinion, so the weapons-of-mass-destruction line was emphasized instead.
Meanwhile, keep in mind that when Bush’s father was president, his policies in the Middle East were so two-faced that, by 1992, his military success in the 1991 Gulf War didn’t do him much good. It was no longer convincing. Evidence and discussion of three separate GOP Middle East scandals in which the elder Bush was believed involved -- the “October [Iranian hostages] Surprise” that the Reagan campaign, including Bush, had made a deal with Iran not to return U.S. hostages until the 1980 election was over; the 1984-86 Iran-Contra scandal; and the 1984-90 “Iraqgate” scandal about how Bush had armed Saddam Hussein before he fought Iraq -- converged in 1991-92. After the military success of 1991 was submerged, the elder Bush was defeated.
The younger Bush, in turn, may find that by 2004, the 2003 advance on Baghdad has been superseded by two emerging scandals -- the cover-up of Saudi participation in 9/11 and the false representations made about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Florida Sen. Graham, with experience chairing the Senate Intelligence Committee, will play at least as important a role as Dean (and if Dean catches hold, Graham would be a prime running mate).
The Bush tax cuts of 2001-03, flagrant in their tilt toward investors and the top 1% of income earners, echo, albeit far more dangerously and at far greater cost, the elder Bush’s insistence on cutting capital gains taxes for investors. Four generations of Bushes have been heavily in the securities, banking and investment business. They think that investment, however redundant or gimmicky, is the be-all and end-all of economics.
The result of this favoritism, in 1991-92 and again today, is a jobless recovery. Investors get some gains, but ordinary folk lose their jobs. Any member of the party of Andrew Jackson, FDR and Harry S. Truman who can’t explain that over the next 15 months has no business being in politics. And this isn’t lefty stuff; it’s capital-C “Centrism” that would cut like a scythe from Long Island to La Mirada.
The younger Bush’s vulnerability for pandering to the religious right is a lot different -- bigger, but tougher to nail -- than his father’s. In 1992, as the elder Bush’s job approval and election prospects plummeted, he had to openly flatter the party’s preachers, paying a price with suburban swing voters. President Bush hasn’t had to do that since early 2000, when he needed Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and the Bob Jones University crowd to save his bacon against John McCain in the South Carolina GOP primary. What the younger Bush has done instead is to give the religious right so much patronage and critical policy influence -- to say nothing of coded biblical references in key speeches -- as to have built them into the system.
The degree is little less than stunning. In late 2001, religious right leaders sampled by the press said Bush had replaced Robertson as the leader of the religious right, becoming the first president to hold both positions simultaneously. Next year’s Democratic nominee could win if he or she is shrewd enough to force the president to spend the autumn of 2004 in the Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago suburbs defending his stance on creationism, his ties to flaky preachers and the faith healer he’s appointed to an advisory board for the Food and Drug Administration.
Will Dean or any other Democrat knock off Bush? It’s too early to say. A second-stage national economic decline and Al Qaeda attacks on two or three U.S. cities could make it happen. A Bush resurgence could make any Democratic challenge a joke.
But in the meantime, the chance for Dean to educate a lie-weary electorate and doctor its spirit with candor is clearly at hand. And he can do worse than heed the 1968 achievement of another man from a small Northern state who is still remembered for crystallizing national disenchantment with the first Texas president to fib America into a bungled war.