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Jewish World Review Sept. 2, 2003/ 5 Elul, 5763

Mark Steyn

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This is Hillary's moment — You go, girl!

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Driving through Lebanon, N.H., the other day, I accidentally veered off on to the shoulder and just missed slamming into a huge billboard proclaiming, ''HOWARD DEAN — THE DOCTOR IS IN!'' Not the way I'd want to go.

But the sign's right. Dr. Dean is ''in.'' The Democratic presidential candidate is raising a ton of money on the Internet, and he's taking it in itsy-bitsy $20 donations, a rare distinction in a party that's become far too dependent on big contributions from a small number of wealthy donors. A presidential campaign has to have an element of romance, and right now Howard Dean is the only guy in the Democratic field providing any. Even those of us who've spent enough time watching him govern Vermont to dismiss him as a mean, thin-skinned, low-down, unprincipled, arrogant no-good have to salute the canniness he's shown in running his presidential campaign.

A year ago, no one outside New England had heard of him, and the famous fellows were all the senators — Joe Lieberman, John Kerry. Now everyone's heard of Dean, and Lieberman and Kerry are getting more obscure by the hour. With the California recall election sucking all the attention away from the presidential midgets for the next month and a half, these fellows will be lucky if they're still in the game at all by Oct. 8.

All this was predictable. In the modern era, governors make the best candidates and senators the worst. The trouble with Bill Clinton's Democratic Party is that by the end of his personality-cult presidency it had so declined at all other levels that it controlled the governor's mansion in almost no big states except California. And no one wants Gray Davis running for president right now. So the pool of viable Democrats able to run from the governor's mansion shrunk to Howard Dean of Vermont, a state so modest its governor doesn't even get a mansion.

As I said a couple of months back, Dean's on course to kill off two big-time rivals in the first two votes: Dick Gephardt in Iowa, John Kerry in New Hampshire. By Jan. 27, he could be the nominee. In the last week or two, he's started behaving like he already is. Dean's suddenly ceased pandering to the party's anti-war base, and begun equivocating his way back to the center. Meanwhile, the previously relatively sensible candidates he's tugged to the left over the last few months are now beached out on the fringe: Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, a hitherto sober chap with a solid foreign policy reputation, was last heard of threatening to impeach Bush over Iraq.

If you're a Democrat — and there are still a few around — what's the best thing to do? I wouldn't myself want to run on a platform that's soft on war, big on taxes and either weaselly evasive or excessively enthusiastic about gay marriage. But, on the other hand, if you're going to lose, what difference does it make? So here's the first scenario: If you think Bush is unbeatable (as incumbents generally are), then it's just a question of picking out who you want to nosedive into oblivion with. Going for, say, Dick Gephardt, the terminally dull congressman who's been around way too long, would guarantee you a genteel, respectable defeat — like Bob Dole in 1996. But, if you're going to flop anyway, wouldn't it be more fun — and maybe better for the long-term health of your party — to take a flier on Dean?

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And that brings us to the second possibility: What if Bush is at least potentially vulnerable? Despite the Democrats' most fervent prayers, the economy refuses to collapse. But it's a pretty freaky world out there, and who knows what else might happen in the next 14 months? A safe choice like Gephardt is a certain bet for narrow defeat. But with Dean, who can say? It might be a McGovern-scale wipeout. But not necessarily. As the motto of Britain's special forces, the SAS, puts it: ''Who Dares Wins.'' Next to all those cautious senators, Howard Dean has been the most daring of Democrats so far, and he's succeeded in defining the primary campaign on his terms. Who's to say he couldn't do the same with the general election?

Which brings us to the third scenario: What if you seriously believe that Bush is defeatable? Who's the best candidate to do that? Dean? Hmm. Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO supreme commander and lion of Kosovo, currently playing electoral footsie with the Dems? I don't think so. The one to watch is the candidate who polls better than any other against the incumbent: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The Clintons didn't get where they are without being bold: No experts thought Bush Sr. could lose in '92, but an obscure Arkansas governor did; no experts thought a sitting first lady could run for office, but Hillary did. They had plenty of luck: Ross Perot vote-splitting in '92, and the pre-9/11 Rudy Giuliani going into emotional meltdown in 2000. But fortune favors the brave, and if Hillary was to shoot for the big one, I wouldn't be surprised if some equally unforeseen breaks go her way.

The way to look at it is like this: What does she have to gain by waiting four years? If Bush wins a second term, the Clinton aura will be very faded by 2008. And, if by some weird chance Bush loses to a Howard Dean, she's going to have to hang around till 2012. Logic dictates that, if Hillary wants to be president, it's this year or none. In her reflexive attacks on Bush over the war and the blackout and everything else, she already sounds like a candidate. The press will lapse into its familiar poodle mode (''Do you think you've been attacked so harshly because our society still has difficulty accepting a strong, intelligent woman?'' etc.). And, more to the point, when the party's busting to hand you the nomination, you only get one opportunity to refuse.

Realistically, Hillary has to decide in the next eight weeks. If the meteoric rise of Howard Dean has stalled by then, the answer's obvious. And, even if it hasn't, you need an awful lot of $20 Internet donations to counter a couple of checks from Barbra Streisand. This is Hillary's moment. You go, girl.

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JWR contributor Mark Steyn is North American Editor of The (London) Spectator and the author, most recently, of "The Face of the Tiger," a new book on the world post-Sept. 11. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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08/04/03: The White Man's Burden
07/29/03: Bill Clinton got this right
06/25/03: It's Mullah time!
05/07/03: What counts is what a guy does when he's not talking
04/30/03: It's named UNSCAM for a very good reason!
04/14/03: Movers and shakers have moved on to the next 'disaster'
03/25/03: Give Saddam credit
03/18/03: 'Eurabia' will have to look after herself
02/27/03: Death wish
02/19/03: The curtain will come down on the peaceniks
02/10/03: Let's quit the UN
02/03/03: Columbia reality-check
01/29/03: Go forth and multiply
01/09/03: America's fake identity crisis
12/31/02: GOP underperforms, but Dems are laughable
11/26/02: A bombing pause --- for 12 months!?
10/30/02: Stop making excuses for Muslim extremists
09/27/02: The more inventively you try to ''explain'' the Islamist psychosis as a rational phenomenon to be accommodated, the more you risk sounding just as nutty as them
08/23/02: Battered Westerner Syndrome inflicted by myopic Muslim defenders
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08/02/02: Armageddon out of here
07/26/02: Enjoy the ''scandal'' while you can, lads
07/16/02: Arafat is toast; Bush knows it --- so why doesn't the rest of the world?
07/10/02: Hey, FBI: So, denial really is a river in Egypt!
06/20/02: A fight to the finish
06/11/02: Rock, royalty a good match
05/31/02: Unless we change our ways ... the world faces a future where things look pretty darn good
05/24/02: Sweet land of liberty: Britain and Europe have free governments, but only in the US are the people truly free
05/14/02: Extreme hypocrisy in the pursuit of 'peace' is ...
05/10/02: The home office of extremism
05/01/02 Slipping down the Eurinal of history: France, the joke is on you
04/23/02 It's time to snap out of Arab fantasy land
04/16/02 Mideast war exposes 'ugly Europeans'
04/09/02 Arafat has begun his countdown to oblivion. Now it's time to crush the Palestinian uprising
03/27/02 The good, the bad and the Gallic shrug
03/20/02 Grand convocation of the weird

© 2002, Mark Steyn