Jewish World Review Jan. 5, 2004/11 Teves, 5764

Wesley Pruden

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A familiar dilemma on the pothead left | The Democrats have an image problem, but it's not, as some pundits insist, a McGovern. The image problem is a goldwater.

Anyone who was around in the winter of 1964 appreciates it at once. Barry Goldwater thrilled angry Republicans, conservatives and political correspondents with deliciously quotable remarks, fired from the lip (not even the hip). This chilled the Republican barons who could recognize a fatal self-inflicted wound when they saw one.

The senator from Arizona, unlike the former governor of Vermont, was personally likable and had a gift for saying sensible things in an outrageous way. This was poison at the polls and the pols knew it. The party pros also understood that nobody could stop him, and when Bill Scranton, the patrician governor of Pennsylvania, tried he was humiliated. Nelson Rockefeller, the scion of the rotting Northeastern Republican establishment, was all but thrown out of the Cow Palace in San Francisco. The Republican usurpers of the early '60s, like the Democratic usurpers of the present day, were determined to remake the party, and they did.

That's what terrifies the Democratic barons now. They see how Howard Dean and the noisy pothead left can remake their party, and, unlike the youthful Republicans who powered Barry Goldwater to the nomination in 1964, will remake it into a permanent minority party — a caucus of gays, feminists, angry blacks and any other bellyacher with a nurtured grievance or unrequited gripe. Not even Hillary could revive it.

Mr. Dean is the perfect candidate for this small but noisy caucus. He may not be, as some of his supporters insist he is not, the goofball liberal that the Republican machinery will portray him to be. But he has made both science and art of transforming reckless rhetoric into the pheromone to seduce San Francisco Democrats.

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Saying or doing silly things usually kills a presidential candidacy. George Romney declared that he had once been a Vietnam War hawk but only because he had been brainwashed by military briefers in Saigon. He was laughed out of the race for the Republican nomination in 1968 within four days. Edmund Muskie denounced the cad he thought was disrespectful to his wife (good), but cried doing it (bad). He was gone from the 1972 campaign within a week. Joe Biden got caught in 1984 cribbing campaign speeches from a British parliamentary candidate, of all people, and was banished overnight. Michael Dukakis finished himself off with the answer to a single question in a presidential debate in 1988, when he said he would respond to a rapist in his wife's bedroom at 3 o'clock in the morning by appointing a task force to study the root causes of crime.

Howard Dean rambled on to a radio interviewer about conspiracy theories ("The most interesting theory that I have heard so far, which is nothing more than a theory, I can't think, it can't be proved, is that [President Bush] was warned ahead [of September 11] by the Saudis"). This would have put anyone else in the graveyard of presidential wannabes before his body cooled. Mr. Dean pays no price for anything he says because he says them to an audience of gluttons with an insatiable appetite for poisoned mashed potatoes.

This drives his rivals in the primaries mad with frustration because they can't get by with it, and the party barons to a fury because they understand the price all Democrats will pay for it. Their faithful acolytes in the media are trying to fit him with a fig leaf. It's not easy and may not be possible. Richard Cohen of The Washington Post, ever eager "to provide context" for rascals and rogues of the left, scolds Mr. Dean for spinning conspiracy trash but insists it's really George W.'s fault ("the Bush administration has been very stingy about revealing just what it knew about terrorist activities before September 11"). E.J. Dionne gamely keeps on keeping on, promising the gang to "watch for the appearance of the new, pragmatic Howard Dean." The New York Times concedes that most people see Mr. Dean as an opportunist appealing to the most unsavory elements of a partisan constituency, but the real story is "more complicated."

Of course. The real story always is. "Context" was the dilemma for the Republicans in the great watershed year of 1964. They didn't solve it, either.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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