December 8, 2003 | National Review Online

The Dean Machine

It's come to this: Howard Dean will be the Democratic nominee for president in 2004.

Today, the remaining Democratic candidates will be brainstorming furiously, trying to figure out a way to prevent the inevitable. But the only way is to take off the gloves and start throwing punches at Dean's fast-moving mouth — and they'll decide not to do that, in part because Al Gore this morning warned them not to, in part because the candidate who attacked Dean would not only drive up Dean's negatives but also his own. In other words, whoever brought Dean down would benefit not himself but another candidate in the race. Such a spirit of self-sacrifice is not evident within this field of wannabees.

It's come to this: Either Al Gore will be asked to be secretary of state in 2004, or Hillary Clinton will be asked to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008. It's one or the other, it can't be both. Did you notice that Gore said this morning that he wants to “remake the Democratic party”? Well, he's taken the first step: The Democratic nominee next year will be his boy, not the Clinton's.

It's come to this: Hillary Clinton now leads the moderate wing of the Democratic party, the faction that favors a muscular foreign and defense posture. Today, Gore branded Dean as the antiwar candidate, the candidate who believes it was a mistake to liberate Iraq from a genocidal dictator, the candidate who thinks Iraq is a Vietnam-like “quagmire.”

Until now, Dean has been careful to be ambiguous in these regards. Until now, he has attempted to have it both ways, to say on some occasions that he wasn't sure it was better that Saddam was gone, on other occasions that it was a good thing to have toppled the tyrannical Baathist regime. Sometimes he says we were wrong to go into Iraq and that we need to get out, but other times he says that to pull out would not be responsible.

To be the antiwar candidate at a time when most Americans support the war is a high-risk strategy. But ten months from now, if we aren't making visible progress in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other fronts in the war on terrorism (or if Americans aren't convinced these are fronts in the war on terrorism) the Gore/Dean analysis may look prescient.

It's come to this: Howard Dean is picking up the flag that Al Gore dropped, and rightfully so. Al Gore is not just a former vice president and presidential candidate. He's also a former tobacco farmer, mule driver, homebuilder, inspirer of Love Story, discoverer of Love Canal, and creator of the Internet. He has reinvented himself more often than Madonna. As David Brooks makes clear in his New York Times column today, Howard Dean also exhibits this chameleon-like skill.

It's come to this: Republicans are getting their wish. Dean is the candidate most have prayed for (assuming, I guess, that Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton, and Carol Mosley Braun weren't going to pull off an upset). But those Republicans breaking out the cigars and bongo drums should get back to work instead. Exactly which states that Gore won in 2000 are slam-dunks for Bush today? I can't think of one.

And do you remember a few years ago when the Democrats were battling for the California gubernatorial nomination? It was Jane Harman vs. Al Checci vs. Gray Davis and most Republicans wanted Gray Davis to win because they thought he'd be a terrible candidate. Turns out they were wrong. He was a good candidate, even though he became a terrible governor.

Howard Dean could be cast from this same mold.

— Clifford D. May was communications director for the Republican National Committee from 1997-2001. A former New York Times foreign correspondent, he now heads the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.