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Jewish World Review Nov. 24, 2003 / 29 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Michael Barone

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Those divided Dems |
The country is closely divided between Republicans and Democrats, but it's not a symmetrical division. The Republicans are united and the Democrats are divided. Republicans are solidly behind George W. Bush. Democrats are about evenly divided on issues like military action in Iraq and gay marriage (a possible election-year issue given the decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court last week). About a third of all Democrats give Bush a positive job rating.

The Democrats seem divided roughly evenly between Bush haters and people who have mixed feelings about the president. Howard Dean has made himself the favorite for the Democratic nomination by forging a bond with the Bush haters through his early and consistent opposition to military action in Iraq. His campaign has used the Internet brilliantly to establish personal links with 230,000 contributors, 505,000 supporters--orders of magnitude more than any other Democrat. Other candidates have responded by imitating his scathing contempt for Bush and all his works, in the hope of peeling off his supporters and preventing him from running away with the race by winning the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. The Democratic race has become a contest for the left-most 20 percent of the electorate.

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The un-Dean. The other Democrats have had little success. Dick Gephardt does have a narrow lead in Iowa, but winning the caucuses there means turning out people on a cold Monday night, and it's not clear that Gephardt's supporters can match the enthusiasm of Dean's. Dean has a wide lead over John Kerry in New Hampshire and runs at or near the top in national polls. So Dean's competitors have started to take a different tack. At the November 15 Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Des Moines, Kerry and John Edwards said that the party needs a nominee with answers, not anger. Gephardt and Joe Lieberman have struck similar notes. They hope to be the un-Dean--the candidate who survives Iowa, New Hampshire, and the gantlet of February 3 contests and then faces off against Dean in the big states starting with Michigan February 7. Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi expects that someone will emerge as the un-Dean. And it's not clear that in the big states Bush haters will outnumber more ambivalent Democrats. Either Dean or the un-Dean, whoever he turns out to be, could win.

But Democrats will have a problem either way. If the un-Dean wins, Dean's enthusiastic supporters will be bitterly disappointed. Some will not want to vote for a Democrat who voted for military action in Iraq. The Green Party nominee, whether Ralph Nader runs or not, could easily exceed the 3 percent Nader won in 2000. That would hurt with the electorate this closely divided. Just ask Al Gore.

The Democrats' problem will be different if Dean is nominated. Their problem will be with American exceptionalism. That is the idea, shared by most Americans, that this country is unique and special, with unique virtues and special responsibilities--a city on a hill, as John Winthrop and Ronald Reagan put it, with the responsibility to spread freedom and democracy around the world. Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were all American exceptionalists. So, as we have seen with ever increasing clarity, is Bush. Dean doesn't seem to be, and neither do most of his followers. When they say they want to take their country back, they mean they want the United States to take its place as just one of many nations, with no claim to moral superiority, heeding the cautions of France, Germany, and Russia; deferring to the United Nations or NATO; seeking the respect of the protesters in the streets of London or the opinion writers in Le Monde.

Bill Clinton, with his political genius, managed to straddle his party's division on American exceptionalism by speaking eloquently about America's commitment to freedom and democracy on some occasions and apologizing for America's past sins on many others. Howard Dean doesn't seem to have this gift. Americans have seldom, if ever, voted for a presidential candidate who does not seem to believe in American exceptionalism. Dean's nomination would give them a clear choice in 2004.

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Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone