The Washington Times

As the Democratic presidential field, following Howard Dean’s lead, increasingly speaks in language designed to fire up the Democratic base, the party has developed a sharper edge on the attack against Republicans than it has displayed in years. One thing I have been wondering is whether the centrist wing of the party, as represented by the Democratic Leadership Council, would be modifying its pitch to accommodate, or perhaps, appease what everyone now agrees is the party’s leftward lurch in presidential politics.

The answer is no. A memo to “Fellow Democrats” published this weekend in the DLC’s magazine Blueprint from Al From and Bruce Reed, respectively the CEO and the president of the DLC, gives no quarter to the over-the-top Bush-bashing popular on the campaign trail, seeing it as a ticket to defeat in 2004. “No matter how angry they are at Bush, there are simply not enough Democratic faithful to send the president into early retirement,” they write.

In fact, as the DLC noted in another recent publication, registered Democrats number about a third of the electorate. Yet, of registered Democrats, only about a third call themselves “liberal,” with the rest styling themselves moderate or even conservative. It’s important to keep the Dean surge in perspective. We are talking about a hard-core liberal Democratic base vote of about a ninth of the electorate. And with only the hard-core base of either party even remotely thinking about politics in July 2003, this third-of-a-third of Democrats is where the entirety of the enthusiasm for Mr. Dean is coming from. Nor, mind you, is opinion among this group unanimous. Mr. Dean has indeed earned the place he is now generally assigned among first-tier candidates, but it’s premature to declare the world’s angriest Democrat a shoe-in.

The Dean phenomenon is strangely reminiscent of Patrick Buchanan’s primary challenge to George H.W. Bush in 1992. To be sure, there is no sitting Democratic president. But there is a Democratic Party establishment in Washington. And following the 2002 elections, it found itself badly out of alignment with party rank-and-file, having played it safe by failing to step up challenges to Mr. Bush, but having lost seats anyway. The position of the Democratic establishment in 2003 is roughly the position of the first Mr. Bush in 1991, thanks to his breaking his “no new taxes” pledge [among other things].

Mr. Dean is the outsider to the establishment insiders. And when, echoing the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s trademark line, he fired up the faithful with his declaration that he’s from “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” it was just like hearing Mr. Buchanan exhorting his “Buchanan brigades” of “peasants with pitchforks” to take back their party and their country.

Among Republicans who identify themselves as conservative, Mr. Buchanan in his heyday, which would not really arrive until 1996 when he beat Bob Dole in New Hampshire, never enjoyed even plurality support against the other contenders for the nomination. And insofar as Republicans identify more frequently as conservative than Democrats do as liberal, Mr. Buchanan had a larger core to appeal to. But he lacked plausibility as a candidate in a general election, and many Republicans that might have been more sympathetic rejected him on those grounds.

What about Mr. Dean? Read this sentence by Messrs. From and Reed carefully: “With the electorate split down the middle, a candidate – particularly a Democrat – can win the presidency only if he convinces voters he’s better than his party.” Note that specification, “particularly a Democrat.” A race between a Republican and a Democrat, each associated down-the-line with the electorate’s perception of what it means to be a Republican or a Democrat – neither one “better than his party,” in other words – will pose more trouble for the Democrat. That’s because the electorate is closer to the Republican base than the Democratic base.

Messrs. From and Reed are convinced that a Democratic nominee “better than his party” can win in 2004, and they have some practical advice to that end: Take a tough line on national security matters [the “war against terrorism is likely to be as defining a political experience for the next generation as the Vietnam War was for baby-boomers”]; emphasize the deficiencies, especially economic, in the Bush record; offer an agenda that supports the middle class; and be patient. The opposition to Mr. Bush will not crystallize for another year, when “the nation will hear the single voice of a Democratic nominee, poised to go one-on-one with the president.”

But as Messrs. Frum and Reed note, it matters what the nominee stands for. The question is whether electoral plausibility in November 2004, as opposed to merely making an anti-Bush point, is what’s going to be on the minds of Democrats as they choose their presidential candidate. Messrs. Frum and Reed are unequivocal in declaring what they think won’t work.