Next week in Washington, the hugely angst-producing debate over whether Howard Dean should lead the Democratic Party out of the George W. Bush wilderness will be decided in a contentious, probably bitter, and ultimately disastrous election, at least for the losers and certainly for the supporters of the losers. A bigger question, of course, is whether it will be a disaster for the party, but the best odds you could get on that kind of speculation is even money.
Yet the debate over what it means to have Dean as chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is likely to endure because he is likely to win. The emergence, and seeming success, of this anti-anti-Dean movement is still something of a stunner to many who believe that the former governor of Vermont is simply a man in search of a cliff over which to take the party. Here I have in mind the people at the Democratic Leadership Council, where the Dean ascension is creating the most anxiety. The Dean surge, they believe, is only more evidence that the party remains in the impractical hands of liberals and losers.
But if Dean wins, the Washington Democratic power vortex and its echo chambers in the state capitals will have to acknowledge one important truth: He will have won, and they will have to respect his winning, especially when you have enemies as a determined as Dean's. Close observers could be in for a surprise when all the factions of the party that despise, are uncomfortable with, or are anxious about Dean and those that regard him as a irresponsible choice for the party come together to toast the winner and pledge to make his tenure a success. But holding your breath is not recommended in this regard.
Still, the decision by former Texas Representative Martin Frost -- the ultimate Washington insider and consummate vote-counter -- to get out of the DNC race was an act of almost totemic concession to Dean's momentum. Frost was not just ending a candidacy; he was yielding territory that now belongs to Dean. Frost didn't get out just because he thought he couldn't win; he got out because nearly everyone he knows -- and that means everyone on the Hill -- thinks Dean is now unbeatable.
As a result, a lot of those unenthused by the Dean candidacy have begun to accept the idea that his election may not be the end of the world and are preparing to live with him, because they have to. Consequently, some of the Dean-bashing has subsided. "I think it's a matter of just being smart, because it looks like the good governor has it wrapped up," says one Democratic leadership aide whose boss has not been on the sidelines of this campaign.
But there are hordes of people outside this fragile Kumbaya circle. They are angry and intend to show it. They launched a warning scud against Dean and his supporters this week in the form of a Robert Novak column, in which a big Democratic donor -- meant as a stand-in for many hundreds, even thousands, more -- warned that if Dean is elected, he would temporarily halt his financial support to the party. According to the column, another 50 big-time contributors have said that a Dean chairmanship will force them to keep their money at home. It is, indeed, a great day when Democrats begin threatening one another with money.
If a Dean win seems nearly certain (was there ever a more foolhardy notion?), it seems equally certain that he will face an almost instant insurgency against his chairmanship. Many of those who worked so diligently to take Dean out in the Democratic presidential primaries last year worry that his election as DNC chairman represents a kind of pathetic recidivism on the committee's part. They remember when Dean's hot anti-war, anti-Bush rhetoric and his pile of Internet money made him the unbeatable front-runner for the Democratic nomination.
But that was before "the scream" -- before the party came to its senses and resorted to a "responsible alternative" named John Kerry. The Dean primary collapse and Kerry's general-election loss are two very different campaigns that prove the same point: Anything can happen, and expectations get turned on their head all the time. So what people expect of Dean, they may not get.
Without a war in Iraq or the threat of one, Howard Dean is just a moderate, if hyperactive, northeastern governor who knows a lot about health care and who has had difficult relations with environmentalists in an environmentally conscious state.
For those who believe that Democrats need, above all else, to shore up their national-security credentials by demonstrating a willingness to kill terrorists, Dean is going to be hard to stomach. Same for those who believe that the next election and the one after that are going to be won by talking to moderate red-states voters.
But there are those who believe that Democrats need to stand for something and surprise voters with a new idea, a new face, or a new argument. In this category, because of all his baggage and all the predictions of disaster, Howard Dean has the potential to surprise simply by shedding that baggage and avoiding disaster.
Terence Samuel is the chief congressional correspondent for "U.S. News & World Report" His column about politics appears each week in the Prospect's online edition.
By Terence Samuel
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved