The Washington Times

The Howard Dean phenomenon in the Democratic Party is now much bigger than the person of the candidate himself. Mr. Dean’s success in coming from nowhere and generating a wildly enthusiastic following among the Democratic base is now having the effect of driving the entire field of Democratic presidential aspirants to the left. By now, there is very little political space in which centrist Democrats of the Democratic Leadership Council and Progressive Policy Institute can operate. And so the question now is whether we aren’t getting close to something like a national consensus that Democrats should run a “progressive” campaign in 2004, sharpening differences between themselves and Republicans and running boldly and unapologetically to the left.

It goes without saying that Republicans would be delighted if Democrats leaned sharply to the left in running against George W. Bush. The president has two main vulnerabilities, the aftermath in Iraq and the economy. First, Iraq. Let’s assume that a year from now, Iraq is something short of a liberal, democratic, capitalist, secular garden spot in the Middle East. There are two ways for Democrats to run against Mr. Bush on Iraq. The first is to say that he hasn’t done enough, that he undertook a project whose dimensions he should have understood but didn’t, and was accordingly unwilling to commit sufficient resources to its success. If you had asked me as recently as a couple of months ago what I thought the Democratic line on Iraq was going to be, that’s what I would have said.

The other way is to denounce the whole enterprise as a mistake, premised on at best mistaken intelligence if not outright deceit, resulting in the needless loss of American lives and a worsening of American security, the solution to which is to get U.S. troops home as soon as possible. Now, if Mr. Bush faces the first of these two arguments, he’s got a challenge of some degree of seriousness on his hands. If, on the other hand, he faces the second, George McGovern-style “Come Home, America” argument, the way Republicans see it voters are likely to reject that alternative as worse, as they did with Mr. McGovern.

On the economy, you can attack the Bush record for producing meager growth, losing jobs, favoring rich contributors and racking up a huge deficit. Again, Mr. Bush would have some explaining to do. Or, you could campaign on reversing his tax cut. Once again, Republicans would be delighted to have the opportunity to run against a Democrat promising to increase taxes.

In short, if circumstances contrive to make Mr. Bush quite vulnerable indeed – by no means a sure thing – then the one thing that might save him easily is a Democratic nominee Republicans can portray as far outside the political mainstream.

As for Democrats, the progressives’ newfound assertiveness within the party and their eagerness to establish their ownership of it by nominating someone unapologetically with them both go without saying. The sources of this progressive resurgence are many. The Naderite left-wing rebellion that so bedeviled Al Gore in 2000 has come home to the party. The cautious policy agenda of Bill Clinton was acceptable as party strategy when it produced results, but not when it failed, as in 2002. And of course, there’s the progressives’ heartfelt sense of the illegitimacy of the Bush administration itself, falling as it does on the heels of the illegitimate GOP effort to oust Bill Clinton from office.

To this, add one more thing: The progressive wing of the Democratic Party would rather be right than be president, as the noted American non-president Henry Clay said in 1850. Not, by the way, that the party’s left thinks this is necessarily the electoral outcome that will result – only that it is willing to take the risk. There is nothing the least bit crazy about this. Reshaping the Democratic Party as a resolutely progressive party is the real task at hand. It will take how long it takes.

And what about the centrist Democrats? How can they possibly be said to have an interest in a left-wing nominee? Well, put it this way: They, too, are engaged in a long-term project, namely, the creation of a Democratic Party that is moderate across a sufficiently broad range of subjects to get elected nationally and therefore to have the White House and the executive branch at the service of a [moderately] progressive agenda. If you think Mr. Bush looks pretty formidable for 2004, then you are at some level already playing for the recriminations following a Democratic loss. A Democratic nominee running far to the left and losing buttresses the centrist case going forward.

The condition of the Democratic debate this year reminds me of the condition of the Republican debate on the eve of the 1964 convention at San Francisco’s Cow Palace. True, Barry Goldwater went on to lose the general election in an epic landslide. But the modern conservative movement considers his nomination its first great victory.