NEW YORK — It's an open secret that most establishment Democrats and liberals in the news media are waiting for someone - anyone - to dethrone former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean as the party's presidential frontrunner.
Dr. Dean may or may not be the answer to the party's prayers. But well-connected and well-heeled Democrats should take another look at him, at least for long enough to see what his candidacy says about the electorate and the coming election.
Establishment phobia of Dean originates in the post-9/11 Democratic realization that to unseat President Bush, the party must win back public trust on national security issues. Hence the powerful appeal of candidates like Sen. John Kerry and Gen. Wesley Clark, with their military backgrounds and foreign-policy accomplishments. Dean, by contrast, with his staunch opposition to the Iraq war and shaky medical deferment during the Vietnam War, is portrayed as another George McGovern - a darling of the elite left who'll never appeal to all-important middle-of-the-road voters. Further, the insiders worry about Dean's "anger," concerned that what plays well with party diehards turns off ordinary voters.
But this view misreads both Dean and the electorate. It is precisely because of Dean's combative temperament that, despite opposing the war, he isn't seen as soft on Saddam Hussein, or on much of anything. Democrats are right that the 2001 attacks put a premium on leaders who will stand up to threats. But, rightly or wrongly, policy prescriptions and past military service may ultimately matter less to voters than intangible perceptions of who seems tough.
Thus, to some national-security-minded voters, Dean's opposition to the war and his fiery persona are potential negatives that cancel each other out and only enhance his appeal. With his steadfast antiwar stance, Dean comes across as more stalwart than candidates who once supported the war but have since qualified their positions.
Democratic establishment types warn that Dean is unelectable. Yet new arrivals to the Dean bandwagon, including labor leader Gerald McEntee, side with him precisely because they think he can defeat Bush. To the party establishment, Dean is the glass half empty, never to be filled. Others think that, having exceeded expectations thus far, Dean has enough juice to carry the general election.
In recent years, few Democratic presidential candidates except Bill Clinton have gotten people excited. But Dean is one of them. Instead of trying to put him back in his bottle, Democrats should work on bottling what he's got. Candidate John Kerry, for one, is onto this. Since his recent campaign shake-up, the Massachusetts senator has offered a pared-down, feisty, and straight-from-the-gut pitch.
It's too early to say whether Dean's allure will cross party lines. That a fiery outsider in the mold of John McCain or Arnold Schwarzenegger could appeal to independent and Republican voters is hardly as implausible as some Democratic mandarins claim. And Dean's gubernatorial record shows some decidedly centrist tendencies. Democrats have never been able to live by their equivalent of Ronald Reagan's famous 11th Commandment: Thou shalt never criticize another Democrat. There's nothing wrong with assailing Dean on substance: His position on gun control, middle-class taxes, or "reregulation" of business are fair game. But by painting him as a political dead weight, Democrats risk overlooking trends that might prove instrumental for the party, regardless of who tops the ticket.
Since the 2000 election, nearly 10 percent of voters aged 18 to 29 have shifted from the Republican to the Democratic camp, the biggest demographic swing seen in a recent Pew poll. While Bush deserves some of the credit for putting off America's youth, Dean's e-mail blitzes, meet-ups, and blogfests surely helped. By signalling that Dean is a disaster-in-the-making, the party establishment risks alienating young, passionate Democrats who are working to take on college Republicans and whose support the party badly needs.
Dean has done more than just draw new voters. His "power to the people" message, reliance on small donors, and use of the Internet have enlivened the race, offering a counterpoint to party rank-and-file defeatism in the face of the Bush juggernaut. His methods may also point to one way Democrats can begin to counter the Republican money machine.
Rather than invoking McGovern to vilify Dean, the party establishment should draw a lesson of its own from the 1972 debacle. That McGovern lost despite rising discontent over the Vietnam War and creeping doubts about Watergate was partly a function of Republican success in tarring the senator as a radical. But Nixon built on the Democrats' own openly voiced fears about what McGovern's youthful armies would do to the party.
Rather than handing their opponents the same free shot at Dean, Democrats should recognize how they might be turning Dean's failure into a self-fulfilling - self-defeating - prophecy. By portraying Dean as a left-winger and a pacifist, Democrats are writing the playbook for the Republican campaign against him. Instead, party regulars should be working behind the scenes with his campaign - as with all other viable candidates - to ensure that whoever gets the nomination has a strategy that will strike independent and moderate voters as more McCain than McGovern.
One explanation for party establishment antipathy toward Dean is that his campaign is a threat to the tight network of Democratic donors, power- brokers, and consultant kingmakers. Yet in 2004, the Democrats' appeal will rest on the need to oust an insular, crony-ridden administration that puts insider interests above the will of the people.
Whether Dean is the nominee or not, the electorate - not the elites - is best placed to decide who carries that message.
• Suzanne Nossel, a former senior adviser at the US Mission to the UN, works for a New York media company.