the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 September 10


We must begin with the premise that the candidacy of Howard Dean is strictly symbolic. It may end with him as president of the United States, but that could not have been its intention in the beginning. And it is apparent that the concept of “President Howard Dean” is not the explanation for its success.

It began, this candidacy, as an acknowledged hopeless cause, when the Democratic Party’s leader, Al Gore, a former vice president and the real winner of the last presidential election, was expected to be the nominee. Only Hillary Clinton was a realistic alternative. Failing one of those, the House and Senate Democratic leaders, Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle, could have emerged as the unexciting, but safe, replacements. The former governor of Vermont? But seriously.

It is also important to note that the candidacy began when Saddam Hussein still ruled Iraq, and the regime change project was still under development (exactly where the reconstruction project yet languishes). The world still sympathized with the United States, and French fries were still French fries. The war seemed surreal and avoidable. The reelection of George Bush seemed inevitable. Howard Dean would have lost in the primaries, returned to private life gracefully, and been “seriously” considered as HHS secretary whenever the Democrats managed to win another election.

Howard Dean now leads the polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and in the latter by an enormous margin. He has for the last six months led the Democratic field in fundraising, with a donor base so broad that he may forgo federal matching funds to spend without limit, in the manner of George W. Bush. Bush, meanwhile, is no longer favored by the public at large for reelection. That does not mean that Dean could beat Bush now. But if the primary season began tomorrow Dean would be the nominee, and if the Iraq situation and the national employment situation did not improve before the general election, Dean would win that, too. At his current rate of improvement, Dean will be the next president even if the unemployment rate falls to zero and Israel is admitted to the Arab League.

One of the great reasons to dislike Ann Coulter is her convenient bipolar partisanship ― conservative on the one hand, Republican on the other. She bashes liberals primarily; but in order to occasionally appear enlightened, she must bash Democrats instead, as on the issue of slavery. Liberals it was who overthrew slavery in the US (as elsewhere), but they were liberal Republicans. Coulter, as a Republican, claims their legacy; but she is conservative in mindset and imagination, and had she been born under slavery she would have defended it to the last. In this reality, she inherited a world without slavery, and as a conservative she celebrates this world uncritically. Roy Moore thinks he is Martin Luther King; in truth, he is George Wallace. Ann Coulter thinks she is John Brown; in truth, she is Jefferson Davis. It is always liberals who change the world for the better, so that fifty years later conservatives can congratulate themselves for not changing it back. Sometimes all that is available to us as liberals is the satisfaction of having done the right thing. We know that our way of open-mindedness and striving for improvement is laudable, though the conservative majority is too busy lauding its own virtues (‘virtues’ being used here in Bill Bennett’s sense).

I have been awaiting a renewed liberal assertiveness my entire adult life, the reemergence of an effective progressive political force, when our kind would proudly announce that we were, in fact, the authors of positive change in the world, would stop hiding in shame and reclaim our place in society. But the apparent arrival of this assertiveness brings less joy to me than expected. Is this what we have been waiting for? Is Howard Dean the One?

In 1988, Michael Dukakis cynically hid his liberalism; in disgust, I voted for Lenora Fulani and the New Alliance Party. Fulani was a flake, as I knew, and the New Alliance a flash in the pan; but it was perceived as the liberal alternative, and that is what I wanted. Four years later, drawing the wrong lessons from Dukakis’s defeat, the Democrats caved to the “modernizers”, desperate for a win. Semi-conservative Bill Clinton was nominated, and did win, and liberals learned to love power. I, though, voted for Fulani again. In 1996, liberals fielded a new candidate, Ralph Nader, and a new party, the Greens, each a good deal more admirable than the choice of the previous two elections; and having been even more disappointed than I expected with Clintonism in practice, I voted for Nader.

The old principle of ticket-balancing, geographical and ideological, was thrown out by Clinton in his choice of Al Gore as a running mate, who was then nominated to succeed him. Gore likewise chose a conservative running mate, Joe Lieberman, and I again voted for Nader. And though Gore was a better person than Clinton, and W. Bush more loathsome than Bob Dole, the vote for Nader was much greater in 2000, and would have been greater still, had many liberals not feared a Bush victory towards the end. The rest really is history; and we all know the blame cast after the heartbreaking outcome, so close that anything could have been responsible for the problem ― that problem being the Bush administration.

September 11 threatened to end the polarization that Bush wrought in a show-stopping chorus of ‘We are the world’. That was a mere two years ago; but the war in Iraq repolarized our global society and reenergized liberal opposition to George Bush. The Democrats’ policy of providing no alternative could have been, and probably was, the reason for the failure of the Democrats to follow historical precedent in winning the midterm Congressional elections in 2002. A certain nostalgia and wistfulness for the protest atmosphere of the Vietnam War era has been present among those who remember the euphoria of the time, and those who feel deprived of it by their youth. The anti-globalization protests have been an attempt to resurrect that spirit, but they are confined largely to the fringe. Iraq, building on that movement, made the sentiment mainstream ― without coming any closer to a coherent definition of its ideology, or even what it was opposing. The anti-war movement led directly to the astonishing phenomenon that is the presidential campaign of Howard Dean.

It is hopefully sufficient to state briefly that I thought that the anti-war movement had a few good arguments to make, but almost never made them. It was instead a triumph of passion over reason, reflexive rejection over calculated acceptance. Its success would not have produced the peaceful or just world that its proponents were expecting. It would have weakened, not strengthened, the UN; exacerbated, not alleviated, the suffering of ordinary Iraqis (yes, even given the failures of the reconstruction); and increased, not decreased, cynicism in the world, at the precise expense of its idealistic complement. Its noxious radical leadership may have used shallow anti-US rhetoric, but the broad public support that the movement received was based on a different line of thinking, concerned more with process, declaring, for instance, that the whole invasion would have been “illegal” without Security Council approval, but “justified” with such approval, a standard which led to the outright bribery of the Security Council’s numerous dictatorships.

Howard Dean is, considering all of this, the perfect candidate for the anti-war movement. He, too, did not decisively oppose the war, merely the procedures by which it became a reality. He supported the removal of Saddam Hussein in principle, but only under impossible conditions, like, for instance, the active support of France. Perhaps a president Howard Dean would not have alienated our allies; but is there any reason to believe that he, or his “multilateralist” predecessors (George HW Bush or Bill Clinton) or any plausible Democrat (Gore, Hillary Clinton, Gephardt, Daschle, Feinstein, Mitchell), would ever have arrived at the point where the time for stern language had passed and the time for unpleasantly-imperfect action had arrived?

Howard Dean is not the liberal that his supporters are treating him as. He supports execution and robust gun rights but not gay marriage. To his credit, he has attempted to communicate this on occasion, though he is also not the straight-talker that his supporters are treating him as. That does give us the opportunity to admire his political skill. His campaign is shrewd, innovative, and outrageously successful. It is combative, which is significant, since mildness surely was a failure, possibly a determinant failure, in the campaigns of Michael Dukakis and Al Gore. Clearly there lies some of Dean’s appeal. But we must ― and we must soon ― step down from the emotion of the war debate and the early primary campaign and consider what Dean’s nomination will mean.

I will concede that for the moment liberal politics cannot be extricated from opposition to the war in Iraq. I regret significantly that liberalism, and especially its boisterous revival, should be linked to the unfortunate demand on the Iraqi people that they suffer for several more years or decades until the West got its act together, that tyranny should be a less-important concern for liberals than the cultivation of the appearance of international cooperation. But the meaning of the Dean campaign is beyond that. If Dean is nominated, I will probably vote for him. I will not want to, but at that point I will not have a choice, and neither will any other liberal.

Again, it is entirely a matter of perception. Dean’s nomination will be seen as a triumph for liberalism within the Democratic Party. There can be no Ralph Naders in a race between Bush and Dean. Dean, perceived as being liberal, will have a more difficult time winning centrist votes, and will need as many votes on the left as are available. And should liberals support a candidate to the left of Dean, they will be seen as utterly void of political sense and incapable of being serious about changing society. They will be blamed for the Democrats’ loss and Bush’s win just as they were in 2000, but this time the blame will be perfectly deserved. Dean is liberalism’s self-indulgence; we cannot indulge ourselves twice. Every liberal in the United States had best show up in November with voting card in hand, and cast a vote for Dean, or more than one if possible. If Dean loses, the Democrats will nominate Zell Miller for the next three elections, dead or alive.

The secondary consequence of the retreat of liberalism since the defeat of Walter Mondale in 1984 is fairly clear to most liberals: the Republicans have also moved further to the right, with no detectable loss of electoral support. The entire country has allowed itself to be realigned to the right. If the Democrats again retreat to the middle after a Dean loss, the Republicans will plant their flag somewhere east of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, and we can forget about gay rights, secularism, health care, conservation, social welfare, sexual and reproductive freedom, ending execution and the drug war, and, for that matter, a United States that adheres to any kind of international legal system, good or bad.

Liberals are meeting over the internet, gathering in coffeehouses, giving money in small amounts, and trying to keep alive the spirit of the anti-war movement. They are out and proud, so to speak, and can feel optimistic and idealistic at the same time. They are grateful to the Dean campaign for giving them something new to believe in. They are defying logic and much of the available evidence so as to perpetuate that belief. They are euphoric to have a chance to celebrate their politics once again. But they need to understand ― we need to understand ― that this is the one chance. Pardon the analogy, but if Howard Dean is anointed, he had damned well better be the messiah. He had better rebuild the temple and usher in a reign of peace, for if he does not, we can look forward to another few generations wandering in the wilderness. I am not waiting for a savior; and I suspect that, should one turn up, we will all just be thrown to the lions.


Original version


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