Jewish World Review Dec. 24, 2002 / 19 Teves, 5762

Steve and Cokie Roberts

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Lessons of history | When Al Gore lost the presidency in 2000 he was running against history. Only one other sitting vice president, George Bush the Elder, had won election to the top job since Martin Van Buren did it in 1836.

As Democrats regroup for the post-Gore era and start surveying the field of potential nominees for 2004, history is again in the way, and for one simple reason: almost every Democratic contender is a current member of Congress.

Of America's 43 presidents, only three -- James A. Garfield, Warren G. Harding and John F. Kennedy -- were actually serving in the legislative branch on the day they were elected. Sure, many former members eventually reached the Oval Office, from Richard Nixon to Lyndon Johnson, but running for president directly from Capitol Hill has proven to be extremely difficult.

That's why you might start paying attention to a man named Howard Dean, the governor of Vermont for the last 11 years, who is leaving office in a few weeks and running full-time for the nomination. Right now, he's the only Democratic contender with two key advantages: he's based outside of Washington and he has executive experience.

All the other hopefuls -- Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt, John Edwards, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman -- live inside the Beltway and have not managed anything bigger than their Congressional offices for many years. Lieberman was once attorney general of Connecticut and Kerry was a military officer in Vietnam, but those experiences of command lie deep in the past.

Dean's background probably helps explain why he's the only candidate who doesn't seem to be crimping and calculating his positions to avoid political risk. No one else, for example, has so forcefully opposed war in Iraq, supported rolling back President Bush's tax cut or advocated universal health care coverage. (He was a physician before entering politics.)

In fact, if Dean resembles any other American politician it might be John McCain, who effectively marketed his "straight talk" approach two years ago. As the Vermonter sums up his campaign, "The fundamental message is standing up for what you believe in, regardless of the polls."

The numbers bolstering Dean are striking. Four of the last five presidents served in state houses, including the only two successful Democrats since 1968: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. And this is no accident.

Legislative leadership is a constant exercise in compromise. While governors make decisions, senators make deals. To be successful on Capitol Hill, you have to build coalitions, reconcile differences, let others take credit.

Running for president is exactly the opposite. You have to draw bright lines instead of blurring them, sharpen edges instead of softening them and take credit for everything, even when you don't deserve it.

Leaders like Bob Dole and Howard Baker were great legislative craftsmen, but enormous flops as presidential candidates. Most backbenchers who ran for president in recent years performed just as poorly, from Republicans Phil Gramm and Oren Hatch to Democrats Tom Harkin and Joe Biden.

The reasons start with leadership style -- but they don't end there. When you're a member of Congress your time is not your own. We recall talking to former Sen. Baker when he was trying to run for president in 1980 while serving as Republican leader. He complained that every time he had a fund-raiser or a rally scheduled in Iowa, he had to run back to Washington to deal with some crisis.

Moreover, lawmakers have to take positions and cast votes on issues they would just as soon ignore. When you're a governor -- or better yet, unemployed -- you can set your own campaign agenda and stick to it. George Bush the Younger, for instance, talked incessantly about education during the campaign while conveniently avoiding troublesome questions like abortion. If he'd been in Congress, he would not have had that luxury.

None of this means Howard Dean is going to be the Democratic nominee. As political analyst Stuart Rothenberg puts it, "He still has to prove he's the little engine that could." But it does mean that Dean is worth watching, and he's already proving to be an energetic campaigner, visiting 28 states in the last year, including Iowa a dozen times and New Hampshire more than 20.

Besides, no other Democratic governor is a likely contender. Gray Davis of California heads the biggest state but is dull and discredited. Tom Vilsack of Iowa gets mentioned occasionally, but he had a tough re-election fight this fall. Roy Barnes of Georgia wanted desperately to run but then lost his job.

So remember Howard Dean. History is on his side.

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© 2002, NEA