Friday, August 05, 2005

Column 37 - (National) Howard Dean

As you might expect, Jim Clark and I collaborate on the topic for these monthly “national” columns, and when we chose Howard Dean for this month’s columns, I imagine Jim saw it, in baseball parlance, as a low slow one over the middle of the plate. It’s so easy to make fun of Howard – the “I have a scream” speech will be replayed longer than Dwight Clark’s immaculate reception, and every time I see it I cringe with embarrassment for him, for the party and for myself.

American politics is a “one strike and you’re out” game. Nixon is remembered for Watergate, not for opening relations with China, Eagleton will be remembered for depression, and Clinton for Lewinsky, and Howard Dean will be remembered for the scream heard round the world. One prominent Republican has called Dean a “gift to the Republican Party,” and I guess in many ways he is. He’s a soft target for sound bites, particularly if that’s all people listen to.

I was acquainted with Howard when I lived in Vermont and have watched his rise in National politics with interest. If I were a Republican I’d make the most of Dean’s “loose cannon” image, but that’s not all there is to the man. As a Democrat I consider him a gift to the Democratic Party as well, particularly at this juncture in American political life.

The most frustrating thing for me since Gore’s 2000 candidacy and on through Kerry’s disappointing performance is the failure of my party to define itself in the face of the Bush Administration’s hypocrisy and pious dissembling (or as Bush has put it, “disassembling”). No one since the hapless Clinton has stood up to say “this is what we are FOR” as Democrats – it is not enough to point out the lies and failures of the administration or to snipe at the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Rice team’s persistence in spinning and ignoring facts they don’t like. If you are against something your focus identifies barriers to the success of what you are against; if you are for something your focus finds opportunities for action that will advance what you are for. The Democrats’ greatest failure in my view has been to allow ourselves to be defined by what we are against.

Whatever Howard Dean’s failures, he is for a Democratic Party that defines itself. Yes, he is excitable and can shoot from the hip, but much of what he is saying is an attempt to bring form to an increasingly formless party and to take a stand in the face of the middle-of-the-roadism of Kerry, Lieberman and other party “leaders.” Kerry lost (narrowly) in 2004 because he was seen as wishy-washy, and rightfully so. You may not agree with Dean, but at least he gives you something to disagree with and the Democratic Party needs that now the way a diabetic needs insulin.

Howard Dean won’t be the Party’s nominee in 2008 – he buried his presidential hopes under that ill-considered enthusiasm that led to the scream – and I don’t know who will be. Right now I don’t see anyone on the horizon who will provide what it will take to break the Right’s grip on the government and on the media. A group of people came to Incline not long ago for a workshop sponsored by Karen Sage of Corporate Visions to work on a new message for the Democratic Party in a grassroots effort to revitalize the party and to focus it on what it stands for. The work they did was valuable, and I don’t know if this effort will be successful or not, but the one shining hope on the horizon for me is that this is the sort of effort that Howard Dean will listen to and it may give him and the Party what we need to locate a Lochinvar who will come from the West and save us all.

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