If not President, Could Screaming Howard be King of the Unhinged Party Instead?

November 27, 2004

Ultralib Eleanor Clift, in her Newsweek web commentary, argues that Howard Dean should become the new head of the Democratic Party. I have to admit, that this idea makes more sense — it couldn’t make less — that Howard becoming the 2008 nominee. Eleanor’s idea is that Howard could fire up the party. Eleanor writes:

The struggle to be Democratic National Committee chair is round one of the battle for the soul of the party. The obvious choice is Howard Dean, who has the clarity of conviction and the passion that voters hunger for even if they don’t always agree with him.

Clift is resurrecting the liberal line during the campaign: Howard is actually a centrist. Says Clift:

Dean is essentially a New Democrat who happened to be against the war. Signing legislation legalizing civil unions is the only outsized liberal thing he did, and he did it reluctantly in a compromise forced by court action. Only a few staffers were present at the signing ceremony, and photographers were banned. In the heyday of his campaign, when Internet contributions were rolling in and he was the front runner, he talked about broadening the party’s base and talking to voters with Confederate decals on their pickup trucks. He should have said gun racks because his message got lost in a debate over whether a politician invoking Confederate symbols is making a racist appeal.

I won’t spend time debating whether Howard Dean is a liberal. I’ll just say that Howard’s reputed fondness for weapons will never negate his commonality with the Michael Moore wing of the party. I’ll also say that if Dean were not a liberal: a) he wouldn’t have been the darling of the most fire breathing of liberals during the campaign and b) he wouldn’t have to “position himself as a centrist” as Eleanor says that he is preparing to do.

But I do think the prospect of Dean leading the party illustrates one of the party’s many dilemmas. The party’s base is too filled with crazies. If you have to cater to these people, how are you ever going to position yourself as mainstream? Howard Dean’s main problem, in the end, was that he revealed himself as being unpresidential. Voters didn’t reject his passion. They rejected his apparent lack of stability. Unfortunately for the Dems, there are too many among their ranks who don’t care about those types of traits. They just want a human vehicle to transport their hatred into positions of authority.

But its not just that the party has too many crazies. It also has too many extremist fringe groups to whose demands the candidates have to cater. Unlike Republican presidential candidates, Democratic ones have to move to the center — just as Clift says Dean is getting ready to do to position himself as party leader and just as Hillary Clinton has been doing in laying a foundation for her presidential run.

The problem is that when they move to the center, they run the risk of alienating their base — the patchwork of extremist groups out there. The real way for Dem candidates to thread this needle — as I’ve written before — is to sell themselves as centrists while quietly assuring their base that they are anything but.

That is, I don’t think we’re going to see another Bill Clinton “Sister Souljah” event. The Dem candidate will not be able to diss his base of social-issue whack jobs as he appears to move to the center. The social issues are what really drive the base right now. Only if they know their candidate if pretending to be diss them will he/she be able to get by with it.

Assuming national security is still the voters’ major concern in 2008, the Democrats, to win, are going to have to find a Scoop Jackson Democrat on defense who can satisfy the liberal base on other issues — and that’s going to be very tough, since there is an abundance of overlap between the antiwar crazies and the social libs.

Obviously the economy will play a major role, depending on the urgency of the war and the state of the economy at the time. But I dare say that Hillary is looking at it this way, which is why she is devoting her energy to establishing her credentials as a hawk — as strong on defense. She probably figures that given the economic prosperity that accompanied her husband’s tenure, she will poll strongly on economic issues regardless. So she’s put her eggs, for now, in the national security basket.

But do you realize how fraudulent that is? Hillary is no more pro-defense than Bill was, and we know how he gutted the military while expanding its commitments all over the globe, mostly for meals-on-wheels projects. But a fear of brazenness or disingenuousness has never stood in Hillary’s way. She will be as happy as a clam masquerading as a hawk for the next four years if she has to.

The bottom line of all of this is that as the electorate is currently situated — far more red than blue at heart — any Democrat, to win the presidency, will have to pretend to be something he/she is not (either on social/moral issues or defense issues), unless the war has gone so badly that all bets are off.