NEW YORK — Facing an uphill battle against an incumbent president, party leaders resolve to pick a "middle-of-the-road" challenger. But a fiery populist thwarts them, calling the rank-and-file back to their ideological roots - and capturing the nomination.
Howard Dean in 2004? No, Ronald Reagan in 1980.
By now, we've all heard the rap on Dr. Dean from Democratic moderates: He's "unelectable." His liberal platforms - especially on taxes and foreign policy - conjure George McGovern, who back in 1972 suffered the party's worst drubbing. Even more, he's a phony liberal: running for president as a left-wing firebrand, he governed Vermont as a cautious centrist.
But Mr. Reagan faced precisely the same charges from the mainstream of his own party in 1980. His chief rival for the GOP nomination, George H.W. Bush (remember him?), ridiculed Reagan's radical tax-slashing proposals as "voodoo economics." Other Republicans denounced Reagan for his bellicose anti-Soviet rhetoric, fearing a repeat of the 1964 election - when the equally strident GOP nominee, Barry Goldwater, went down to a landslide defeat.
And when Reagan was governor of California, his critics noted, he was hardly a blood-and-guts conservative. Just a year after he unseated liberal icon Pat Brown, Reagan approved the largest tax hike in the state's history. During Reagan's eight years in Sacramento, in fact, public spending doubled - from $5 billion to $10 billion per year.
On hot-button culture-war issues, meanwhile, Reagan sometimes governed as an out-and-out liberal. He signed the most permissive abortion law in the United States, later claiming that he hadn't really understood its provisions.
By 1980, however, Reagan had refashioned himself as a right-winger - and, more astoundingly, as a born-again Christian. An infrequent churchgoer, Reagan told a group of fundamentalist ministers that all of the world's problems "have their answer in that single book - the Bible." To the dismay of mainstream Republicans, Reagan even demanded creationist instruction alongside evolution in the public schools. He also declared his allegiance to "family values," although Reagan was divorced as a younger man and rarely saw his own children.
But it worked. Despite his enormous political and personal contradictions, Reagan rallied the ground troops of the Republican party - and many people outside it. In January 1980, pollsters reported that two-thirds of Americans favored Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan. Ten months later, Reagan defeated Carter by a healthy margin of 51 to 41 percent - with the remaining votes going to the liberal Republican John Anderson.
In his own transition from governor to White House aspirant, Howard Dean has undergone an equally stark - or, if you prefer, slick - ideological rebirth. When Dean entered the Vermont State House in 1991, inheriting a budget deficit, he immediately endorsed his GOP predecessor's plan for cuts in social spending. He also enlisted Republican businessmen as economic advisers, sparking charges of apostasy from within his party. ("At least he's our Republican," one local Democrat quipped.)
Nor did Dean take the lead in Vermont's most important liberal initiatives of the 1990s - a share-the-wealth school-funding plan and a "civil unions" bill for gays. Instead, he waited to see which way the wind would blow. When the civil-unions issue was before the Vermont Supreme Court, Dean refused to discuss it; when the court threw the matter to the state legislature, he said he was "uncomfortable" with same-sex marriage; and when lawmakers finally passed a civil-unions measure, he signed it behind closed doors.
So when Howard Dean's critics say that he's a Johnny-come-lately liberal, they're right. But when they say he's too "extreme" to win a general election, they're wrong.
In April 1980, a failed mission to rescue hostages in Iran resulted in eight American deaths - and set the stage for Reagan's victory in November. If more and more Americans continue to perish in Iraq, Dean might receive a comparable boost.
In the end, though, Dean's fate will hinge less upon the war in Iraq than upon the battle inside the Democratic Party. Ronald Reagan reinvigorated his own party by reminding voters what it used to represent, before moderates - like Reagan himself, ironically - diluted its message. Howard Dean can do the same.
• Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of 'Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools.'