SALT LAKE CITY — Can Dean do it? That's the question Democrats are pondering following Howard Dean's weekend installation as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Can Governor Dean - whose primal scream, fairly or not, became for many the trademark of his presidential campaign - shed his angry leftist image and guide his demoralized party to revitalized and winning national strength against the Republicans? Clearly, many Democrats believe he can. Other Democrats are hopeful, but wary.
Republicans, buoyed by their election victory, and President Bush's improved stature in the polls, are chortling that in political terms Dean's selection is all that they could hope for. They reason that he reaffirms the image of a party that is negative about Republican policies and principles that found public support in the recent elections, a party that is leftist by conviction and thus cannot capture the centrist vote necessary to govern.
But Republicans should be careful in their cheerful assessment. Dean is articulate and fast on his feet. Until his campaign imploded, he was enormously persuasive in capturing grass-roots support. He was incredibly successful in raising millions of dollars for the Democrats, and money is critical in electioneering.
He is striving to erase his old image of negativism, declaring in his National Committee acceptance speech: Democrats "cannot win if all we are is against the current president and his administration."
But the old Dean keeps rearing his head.
The New York Times quotes Dean as telling party members earlier at the weekend meeting: "I think of Republicans, with all their moral values, as the Pharisees and the Sadducees." And at a meeting of the party's African-American caucus he suggested the Democrats have a corner on values: "When you think of the New Testament, they [Republicans] get about two of the values, and we get about 27."
Eager to restrain the immoderate Dean and foster the moderate one, Democratic party leaders like Senate minority leader Harry Reid say they have made it clear to Dean that elected officials like them determine party policy and his job is to carry it out.
But the party seems to remain riven between those who relish the old slash-and-burn tactics of Howard Dean, and those who think it must forsake the politics of the far left if it is to capture the centrist votes that might permit it to govern.
Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, for instance, seems to be reveling in the former posture. He has been on an anti-Bush tear, hammering away at what he calls the "catastrophic failure" of the president's Iraq policy, offering sour commentary on the Iraqi people's historic turnout to vote, and demanding an early pullout of US troops.
By contrast, Democratic New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has been staking out positions on the war, and religion, and morals that seem calculated to gain her centrist support should she formally decide to run for the presidency in 2008.
In almost any other country in the world, this would be considered an incredibly early stage in the campaign for an election four years away. In the US, the campaign is virtually under way.
Whether Senator Clinton could actually garner the votes to become America's first woman president is debatable, but at this early stage she is a significant contender for her party's nomination. If unpredictable Democrats are capable of installing Dean as party chairman, they may be capable of running Clinton as their presidential candidate.
The Clintons have certainly been brilliant in diminishing the aura of personal scandal that besmirched Bill Clinton's tenure in the White House.
Mrs. Clinton has proved an able and respected senator.
Mr. Clinton has found a new career in international diplomacy. He will serve as a special envoy of the United Nations for the next two years. Some have even suggested that he might succeed Kofi Annan as UN Secretary-General.
That is a highly implausible scenario. Asian nations believe that they are entitled to appoint the next secretary-general, and even if an American should somehow emerge as a candidate, it is beyond political reason that the Bush administration would support for the UN post the husband of a potential Democratic contender for the US presidency.
All this plays into the turmoil that portends as the Democratic party re-groups and possibly reinvents itself. Some of us may believe that this political gestation period between American presidential elections is too long, too costly, and too tedious.
But it has become a given in the democratic process of this remarkable country. This time around, the Democrats seem intent on enlivening it.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.