"We're going to have a little fun at the president's expense."
That's what Howard Dean often says with a smile as he tears into President Bush. It's one of Dean's favorite themes. The van he campaigned in last summer bore the license plate "McFun." Now Dean is having fun again, this time at the expense of his own party.
The latest fun started on Dec. 18. In a speech that day, Dean said, "While Bill Clinton said that the era of big government is over, I believe we must enter a new era for the Democratic Party—not one where we join Republicans and aim simply to limit the damage they inflict on working families." Was Dean belittling Clinton? Dean's aides said no. But on Dec. 22, Dean was at it again. He told an audience that to win the White House, he would need support from all Democrats, "even the Democratic Leadership Council, which is sort of the Republican part of the Democratic Party … the Republican wing of the Democratic Party. We're going to need them too."
Republican wing? The Democratic Leadership Council is the organization Bill Clinton co-founded in 1985 to represent moderate and conservative Democrats. Clinton called this constituency "us." Dean calls it "them."
When Dean was asked the next day about his jab at the DLC, he explained, "I was having a little fun at their expense. They've had eight months of fun at my expense. I figured I owed them a day of fun at their expense."
Dean has a legitimate beef with some senior DLC officials. For months, they took unfair potshots at him. They misunderstood and misrepresented his politics—accusing him, for example, of "interest-group liberalism" when in fact he stiffed liberal interest groups as governor of Vermont. But Dean's retort exposes a more serious flaw. The fun he enjoys having at other people's expense turns out not to be confined to Bush, Republicans, or people who have wronged Dean. Most DLC members, after all, haven't said anything unkind about Dean. His joy in sticking it to others isn't really about the target of the moment. It's about him.
Until now, this belligerence has served Dean well. In a nine-candidate field, he has distinguished himself by constantly attacking the "Washington Democrats" who stood with Bush on this or that issue. Each time an opponent counterattacks, Dean's campaign exhorts his followers to send the opponent a message by sending Dean money. "It's a polite way of saying where you can take it," Dean explained Friday.
But after a while, telling people where they can take it becomes a problem. The list of constituencies to whom you've given the finger grows. "Them" starts to outnumber "us." Clinton warned of such self-destruction when he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992: "For too long, politicians have told the most of us that are doing all right that what's really wrong with America is the rest of us: them. … We've nearly them'd ourselves to death. Them, and them, and them. But this is America. There is no them; there is only us."
Dean doesn't see it that way. He isn't trying to make enemies; he's just having fun. He recognizes malice and pettiness only when he's the target. Last week, he complained that the Democratic primary campaign needed a "character transplant" because his rivals were lying about him. He told the New York Times that their attacks made them "look smaller."
Clinton had a larger view of smallness. To him, smallness wasn't just something to decry in your opponent. It was something to beware of in yourself. "This country is being killed by people who try to break us down and tear us up and make us be little when we have to be big," he warned in the best speech of his 1992 campaign. The speech was about AIDS and gay rights, but it was really about an ideal against which politicians and activists in both parties, including Clinton, came up short. It was about learning to be big.
That's what Dean needs to learn. Being big means rising above the mischievous glee of mocking your adversary. It means not hitting back when you don't need to. It means focusing on those you can help, not those you can punish. It means representing the whole party and eventually the whole country. If Dean can't absorb that lesson, his party will indeed need a character transplant. And the character that will have to come out is his.