December 17, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

Howard’s End?

The current issue of National Review carries a photograph of a maniacally snarling Howard Dean. “Please,” reads the headline, “nominate this man.”

National Review is smart, sassy and conservative, and – from a strictly partisan Republican perspective – probably correct. It's not that most GOP strategists believe Dean will be easy for President Bush to beat. Rather, they believe he will be a weaker contender than the other serious Democratic candidates. 

But partisanship aside and patriotism front-and-center, Republicans should be rooting for a nominee who will give Bush a tougher contest. Why wish for trouble? Because the United States can ill afford to risk electing a president who fails to understand that we are engaged in a real and perilous world war, with its bloodiest front in Iraq. The next president, be he Republican or Democrat, must grasp that there can be no retreat from this conflict, no return to the pre-9/11 illusion that Islamist totalitarian terrorism is merely an annoyance or, worse, the result of grievances that can be appeased.

Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman get that. Dr. Dean does not. Nor, it appears, does Al Gore. Endorsing Dean just days before the capture of Saddam Hussein, Gore said of America's intervention in Iraq: “Our nation in its 200-year history has never made a worse foreign policy mistake.”

Is it possible Al Gore sincerely believes that liberating Iraqis from a mass murderer who ran secret WMD programs, trained terrorists and swore to exact revenge against America was worse then, say, losing in Viet Nam, or not preventing genocide in Rwanda and Cambodia or, for that matter, failing to aggressively pursue terrorists during the eight years he worked in the White House? (And how about the Mexican-American War — which Emerson and Thoreau protested?)

There's also this to consider: From a strictly partisan Democratic perspective, an anti-war candidate wins in November 2004 only if America is, by then, pretty clearly losing in Iraq and elsewhere. In other words, choosing an anti-war nominee puts Democrats in the awkward position of betting on American failure.

By contrast, a candidate who essentially agrees with Bush on prosecuting the war against terrorists and tyrants – even if he's critical of how Bush is going about it — is a candidate who takes the issue off the table. It's a basic rule of politics: Whenever two candidates agree on an issue, there's no debate on that issue so the contest shifts to other issues. In this instance, the debate would shift from national security – where Republicans have long had a substantial, poll-measured advantage – to such issues as the economy, the environment, health care and education, where Democrats are stronger.

Some Democrats see all this clearly. Sen. Zell Miller says in his new book, “A National Party No More,” that Democrats now pandering to the Left are “exacerbating the difficulties of a nation at war. …Howard Dean, while not alone, is the worst offender.”

Will Marshall, head of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank, has said that in 2004, his party's candidate must be a “Blair Democrat,” one who – like British Prime Minister Tony Blair – favors a national security policy consistent with “the party's great internationalists: Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy.”

Marshall has warned that Dean's arguments, by contrast, “echo those of Henry Wallace and George McGovern.” Not only don't they represent the beliefs of most voters, he says, they don't even represent a majority within the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, Dean is today the clear front-runner for his party's nomination at least in part because his passionate supporters have “disproportionate influence” in the early caucuses and primaries.

Lawrence F. Kaplan, a senior editor at The New Republic – a smart, sassy and liberal magazine – goes even further, calling Dean “an angry leftist with bad ideas” whose advisors are working overtime to turn him into “an angry centrist with no ideas.”

So far, the effort has not paid off. In his first major foreign policy speech on Monday ((12/15)), Dean asserted that, “the capture of Saddam has not made America safer.” That inspired Lieberman to finally start throwing some hard right hooks.

“If he truly believes the capture of this evil man has not made America safer, then Howard Dean has put himself in his own spider hole of denial,” Lieberman said. “I fear that the American people will wonder if they will be safer with him as president.” Lieberman added:  “Howard Dean hardly talks about the war on terrorism. …The American people are not going to elect someone who doesn't want to fight terrorism.”

There is still time for Democrats who agree with that prediction to switch horses. But I bet Democrats won't take my advice. I bet they'll take the advice of National Review instead.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.