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Defining Dr. Dean

Al Gore’s endorsement of Howard Dean this week gives an all-but-official stamp to something that’s been increasingly apparent for weeks to anyone following the Democratic presidential contest: The former Vermont governor is now the front-runner. From a nine-way melee, the race has evolved into a two-way battle between Dean and everyone else.

Dean has gotten this far because he managed early on to figure out two political truths that have been obvious for decades but still seem somehow to elude most Democrats. First, mounting a presidential primary campaign is about mobilizing a base constituency and arousing some ideological passion. Second, the candidate who will win the votes of Americans come November is the candidate who can win their hearts on television. All the programs in the world won’t replace charisma. Throughout this race, the other candidates have concentrated on presenting programs for governing that they hope will convince by their excellence. Dean has distinguished himself by breathing fire. In so doing he has captured imaginations across the country.

If the doctor from Vermont hopes to go the next step, to unite the party and present a credible challenge to the president next fall, he must show that he has learned a third essential truth that hasn’t been apparent in his performance so far: that Americans are wary of ideologues and extremists. They want a president who they think will govern from the center. Dean’s challenge now is to preserve the passion he’s fired up among his supporters, maintain the credibility of his attacks on the current administration and yet win the trust of the broad middle. It’s a tall order.

Gore may have been thinking along those lines when he decided, as the party’s last standard-bearer and nominal head, to confer his endorsement this early in the race. In explaining his thinking, the former vice president singled out Dean’s opposition to the war in Iraq, saying the war was America’s worst “foreign policy mistake” in two centuries and Dean was “the only major candidate who made the correct judgment” on the issue. But the truth is, that’s no longer a real issue. The burning question facing America right now is what to do with Iraq now that we’ve conquered it. And in this, as this week’s televised debate made clear, Dean is no different from his major rivals. They all agree that the Bush administration has gotten us into a mess. They all agree that the solution is not to cut and run, which would hand a final victory to Saddam and Osama, but to stay in and somehow fix the mess. Indeed, Dean may be closer to the other major Democrats than to the young “bring-’em-home” activists who form the core of his support.

That, in fact, may have been Gore’s real agenda. In urging Democrats to unite behind the front-runner and give up “the luxury of fighting among ourselves,” Gore was calling for an end to the free-for-all that reduces all the contenders to pygmy size, and let the party gear up for the real fight. But he was also urging the party’s mainstream to move into the Dean organization and lend some adult supervision. Dean is not a creature of the radical antiwar left that surrounds him. If anything, he is an unorthodox mix of ideas ranging from fiscal conservatism to social liberalism.

True, there are still issues to be fought out. We’re still eager to see the centrist vision of candidates like Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman get a full hearing. We’d like to see more attention paid to the issues of economic fairness that have been central to the Gephardt and Edwards campaigns but haven’t had much of an echo in the Dean campaign.

But the contest may not be a real contest anymore. And the longer it goes on, the more Dean risks being defined by his supporters. That would marginalize him and ensure a Republican landslide next November. No less important, it would empty the Democratic Party for a long time to come of responsible internationalists — those who take seriously America’s overseas commitments to democracy, to freedom and, yes, to Israel. Many of those internationalists will be deeply uncomfortable in the Republican Party of Tom DeLay and John Ashcroft. If they hope to maintain a home in the Democratic Party, it may be time to heed Gore’s message and close ranks.

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