WASHINGTON — With 50 art galleries for each of its three electoral votes, Vermont is more a vacation destination than a presidential launching pad. So, Howard Dean, despite being the cover story on two weekly news magazines, is unlikely to be the first Vermont officeholder to ascend to the White House. Still, even failure could give him a major place in U.S. political history.
The gutsy Dean seems to be emerging as the "anti-Bush" of 2003-04 U.S. politics. He's pumping candor into a presidential race otherwise mired in Washington establishment-speak. This could be the key litmus test -- for George W. Bush as well as Dean -- because failing presidencies frequently attract such a nemesis, and the wounded incumbent often fails to survive.
Three examples stand out. Independent Ross Perot became the "anti-Bush" who helped defeat the current president's father in 1992. Newt Gingrich, who became House speaker in 1995, was the "anti-Clinton" who temporarily wounded the incumbent in 1994. The most relevant example may be Eugene McCarthy, the tweedy, intellectual U.S. senator from Minnesota who became the "anti-LBJ" of 1968, forcing an earlier deceitful, cowboy- hatted Texas war president, Lyndon B. Johnson, into retirement.
None of the three ever became president, but two of the three, Perot and McCarthy, raised issues and criticisms that helped defeat a president. Dean could follow suit.
To be sure, a case can be made for Dean getting the Democratic nomination and even winning. Four of the last five presidents -- Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and the current President Bush -- had been state governors or ex-governors. No sitting U.S. senator has won since John F. Kennedy in 1960 -- hardly good news for presidential aspirants John F. Kerry, John Edwards, Bob Graham and Joe Lieberman -- and you have to go back to 1880 to find a sitting member of the House who won the presidency, a discouraging indicator for 2004 hopefuls Richard A. Gephardt and Dennis J. Kucinich. Being able to kick Washington works better than being part of it.
As for his tactical shrewdness, Dean has only begun to prove himself. Logically enough, he has moved to the front of the Democratic pack by playing to the rising anti-Bush sentiment among party regulars. But both of his key themes -- Bush's Iraqi war policies and misstatements and his upper-bracket-tilted tax cuts -- will have to be polished as cutting issues to gain centrist swing voters.
If the November 2004 election were speeded up and held in a couple of weeks, with Dean as the Democrats' nominee, my guess is that even though Bush has been sinking in the polls, he would still beat Dean by something like 57% to 43%. The former Vermont governor might only carry three or four states.
But courage and a willingness to buck conventional wisdom count for a lot, and if Dean can "centrify" his message while maintaining its bold, steel-toed emphasis on Bush's war policy and rhetoric and the GOP's fat-cat tax pandering, he can broaden his appeal. Moreover, he can reduce Bush's attractiveness in the process.
At some point, Dean will have to consider slowly zeroing in on one issue he has so far left out. This is the extent to which Bush has reshaped the Republican Party from a party of mainstream churches into a 2000 electoral coalition unprecedentedly grouped around and influenced by Southern evangelical and fundamentalist voters and their wackier leaders.
Part of the Bush weakness is dynastic. The 43rd president is reenacting a lot of the biases, favoritisms and mismanagements displayed by his father, and they're too innate to be easily shed. Here are the big three, if Democrats can figure out how to play them:
Dean is correct about the administration's 9/11 and war-related vulnerabilities. After four decades of Bush ties to the Persian Gulf, the family is so interlocked with the local royal families, banks and big-money crowd that duplicity and conflicts of interest abound. The result is White House secrecy and deceit. Key Saudis seem to have had dealings with some of the 9/11 hijackers, but the White House, pulled both ways, can't push. One reason for invading Iraq, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, was to be able to base U.S. forces there to get them out of a shaky Saudi Arabia. Obviously, that wouldn't have flown with U.S. public opinion, so the weapons-of-mass-destruction line was emphasized instead.