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On the Dean Campaign Trail, the Man in the Mirror Is Bush

George W. Bush and Howard Dean: separated at birth?

It’s a question worth asking, not only because the two were reared in wealthy families, punched their tickets at Yale (Bush just three years ahead of Dean), and managed to avoid the mud and blood of Vietnam.

Nor even because both first made their names in politics as moderate governors who reached beyond party lines to pass legislation and banged heads occasionally within their own party.

The real reason Bush and Dean appear to be twins beneath the skin is that their current political strategies and styles are so similar. Dean has ascended in the Democratic presidential race by defining himself as the anti-Bush.

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But in his approach to politics, Dean is now Bush’s mirror image, the liberal equivalent of a conservative president.

The two converge most profoundly in their vision of how to win the White House at a time when America is divided almost exactly in half between the parties. As governors, each courted voters from both parties. But in the national arena, both insist the highest priority must be to unify and energize their party’s hard-core base.

Almost every major policy decision Bush has made in office -- from his tax cuts, to his energy and environmental plans, to his decision to invade Iraq without explicit United Nations authorization -- has reflected the preferences of his core conservative supporters, even at the price of alienating moderate swing voters.

As a candidate, Dean has shown the same priority. At every stop, he insists Democrats must shift their attention away from the swing voters that Bill Clinton prized to excite core liberal constituencies like union members, women’s groups, minorities and gay rights activists. “We are going to take back the Democratic Party from the idea that the way to win elections is to neglect our base,” he insists.

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Like Bush with his “compassionate conservatism” in 2000, Dean challenges his party’s most ideological elements on selected fronts; some liberals, for instance, bridle at Dean’s tepid support for gun control and his fervent embrace of a balanced federal budget.

But Dean has mostly moved to accommodate the left, renouncing his earlier support for free trade and spending restraints on Social Security and Medicare, echoing teacher-union criticism of tougher educational accountability, and, above all, centering his campaign on opposition to the war in Iraq.

And over the last two weeks, in a series of statements, Dean has signaled sympathy for the discontent on much of the left about Clinton’s “New Democrat” agenda.

Dean’s words about Clinton himself were ambiguous enough to leave the Democratic front-runner with plausible deniability that he was criticizing the former president personally. But Dean unambiguously aligned himself with those who believe Clinton conceded too much ground to Republicans when he described the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group that incubated many of Clinton’s signature ideas, as “the Republican wing of the Democratic Party.”

With that declaration, Dean may be sending a message to his party’s most ideological elements similar to the one that Bush delivered when he stepped onto the stage at fundamentalist Bob Jones University during the do-or-die South Carolina Republican primary in 2000. Like Bush then, Dean now is telling his party’s ideological core that if he wins, they will be his top priority.

Dean and Bush also share a tendency to sometimes speak before they think, and to dig in deeper when events seemingly demand retreat. More important, Dean is proving Bush’s double in his tendency to view the world in black and white. Bush has divided the globe into nations that support his view on how to combat terrorism and those that are with the terrorists: His guiding principle is that you’re either with him or against him.

Dean accuses Bush of ideological rigidity in categorizing the world that way, but the former Vermont governor shows the same instinct on domestic issues. At his most indignant, Dean sometimes gives the impression that he considers every critic of affirmative action a racist, every opponent of gay civil unions a bigot and every antiabortion activist a misogynist.

If Dean wins, he could polarize the capital and the country as sharply as Bush. Bush’s determination to satisfy his base, and his tendency to frame policy decisions as a choice between right and wrong, has led him to shelve almost entirely the bipartisan deal-making skills he demonstrated as Texas governor; he’s allowed the congressional GOP majority to exclude Democrats from negotiation on major bills.

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Likewise, it’s difficult to imagine Dean courting congressional Republicans for too many grand compromises after running a campaign centered on the proposition that Washington Democrats have cooperated with Bush and the GOP too much. Every time a President Dean would sit down with a Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the official White House blog would probably light up with indignation.

This hard-nosed, tend-your-base approach has worked well enough for Bush. He squeezed into the White House by consolidating the nation’s most culturally conservative regions, and has pushed through big chunks of his legislative agenda by maximizing Republican unity in Congress.

But there are reasons to wonder whether the same approach would work as well for Dean if he were to win the nomination. For one thing, in the 2000 election about 50% more Americans identified themselves as conservative than liberal; for another, many moderate and independent voters ambivalent about Bush’s policy agenda have warmed to the president because they consider him a strong leader in the war against terrorism.

If Dean’s exhortations to his liberal base sound too shrill for independents, most of them could comfortably default into voting for Bush.

Which means imitating the president may not be the most promising strategy for beating him.

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Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times’ Web site at www.latimes.com/brownstein.


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