Howard Dean, suicide bomber.

Politics and policy.
Dec. 22 2003 6:28 PM

Jihoward

Howard Dean, suicide bomber.

Dean's populist jihad might do him in
Dean's populist jihad might do him in

Last Thursday, Howard Dean declared, "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."Clinton alumni, naturally offended, fired back. Bruce Reed, Clinton's former chief domestic policy adviser, called Dean's remark "a cheap shot at Clintonism."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Friday, the Dean campaign denied that Dean had meant to slam Clinton. "If he is the nominee, Governor Dean would ask for President Clinton and former members of his Administration to be a very active part of his campaign," said the campaign. The Dean aide who had written the offending line in Dean's speech, Jeremy Ben-Ami, insisted that the line was "not intended in any way to pick a fight with the Clinton legacy." Rather, it was "intended to pick a fight with the Washington Democrats in power."

Washington Democrats in power? You mean, as opposed to Clinton, the last Democrat who held power in Washington? The guy in whose White House, located in Washington, Ben-Ami worked as a domestic policy adviser? The guy Howard Dean defended against "liberals"when, in 1996, he joined Republicans in supporting welfare reform legislation, aiming simply to limit the damage it might inflict?

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Sunday morning, the Deaniacs were at it again. On ABC's This Week, Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi said Dean was running against the Democratic "establishment." Pressed to define the members of this "establishment," Trippi bobbed and weaved. Eventually, he said, "I'm talking about Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, and Joe Lieberman."

You mean, Dick Gephardt, the guy for whose presidential campaign Trippi worked in 1988? The guy who shepherded Clinton's economic plan through the House in 1993 and hasn't held power in Washington since he stepped down as minority leader last year? You mean Joe Lieberman, the presidential candidate who has most fiercely defended and most faithfully extended Clinton's centrist Democratic agenda?

You get the point. Either all this stuff from the Dean campaign about the establishment is an attack on the Clintonian center, or it's the usual meaningless blather that politicians toss to crowds to make themselves look nonpolitical. Either way, it's fake. I think it's blather, but the more Dean talks about it and applies it to various issues, the more it looks like an attack on the center. And if that's the mission Dean has in mind, Democrats would be well-advised to jump off his truck before he blows it up.

Dean often says Democrats can't win by running as "Bush lite." Thursday, he accused "Washington Democrats" of failing to oppose President Bush more diametrically on Iraq, tax cuts, and education. "The Democratic Party has to offer a clear alternative," he argued. Toward that end, Dean rejects nearly every proposition or policy put forward by Bush. "We are no safer today than we were the day the planes struck at the World Trade Center," Dean said Thursday, adding that the capture of Saddam Hussein "does not mean that this president—or the Washington Democrats—can declare victory in the war on terror."

Picture that debate next year: On one side, Bush, the Washington Democrats, support for some tax cuts, relief at Saddam's capture, and the belief that by toppling the Taliban, if not Saddam, we're safer today than we were on 9/11. On the other side, Howard Dean.

There are three problems with this "clear alternative" approach. One is that it misconceives and underestimates the alternative. As I argued a year ago, being a Clinton Democrat rather than a McGovern Democrat isn't about eliminating the differences between you and the Republicans. It's about choosing those differences. You eliminate differences that create bad policy or bad politics in order to focus the election on differences that create good policy or good politics. War? Yes, if necessary, but with allies so we don't get stuck holding the bag. Tax cuts? Yes, but for the middle class, not the rich.

The second problem is that far from freeing you, the "clear alternative" approach makes you a slave. If you insist on being different about everything, you let your opponent define you by defining himself. He's for war, so you're against it. He's for tax cuts, so you're against them. Pretty soon, you're against Mom and apple pie.

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