The power of self-delusional thinking

Over the past few days, we’ve been speculating, along with some of our readers, about whether Dean will move towards the center once he secures the nomination, or even before that. I have guessed that Dean will do so; some readers have agreed with Hugh Hewitt that Dean probably won’t. This piece by Lawrence Kaplan of the New Republic in today’s Washington Post suggests a third and very plausible scenario. Dean will seek the center without really moving towards it because he is deluded about where the center is located.
Kaplan has plenty of evidence that this is already occurring. Dean’s backers are claiming that Dean is fundamentally moderate because, as governor, he was fiscally conservative and because he opposes gun control. Of course, there is still the small matter of foreign policy. But here, notes Kaplan, Dean’s web site has “trumpeted the rollout of the Governor’s ostensibly tough-minded foreign policy team with the admonition ‘McGovernize this.'” However, Kaplan continues, “anyone who bears the slightest familiarity with the writings of [the team’s] members [e.g., Benjamin Barber, Anthony Lake, Jeffrey Sachs, and Susan Rice] could all too easily oblige.” Dean is also fond of pointing out that he supported the first war in the Persian Gulf War. Thus, Dean’s formula for finding the center consists of emphasizing aspects of his record as governor; putting together a foreign policy team that is leftist, but not loony; and pointing to foreign policy positions he took pre-9/11.
I agree with Kaplan that Dean is delusional if he thinks this enough to position himself anywhere near the center. The defining issue of this campaign will be national security in the post 9/11 environment. Dean’s Vermont budgets, his position on gun control, his roster of Clinton-era and other advisers, and his views about the 1991 war all will count for almost nothing when it comes to this defining issue. The things that will count are his view that the U.S. needs to seek international permission before using military force; his refusal to prejudge Osama bin Laden; his (subsequently withdrawn) demand that the U.S. troops in Iraq “need to come home;” and his attacks against the more moderate members of his own party. “Is it truly necessary,” asks Kaplan, “to point out the echoes of McGovern in this litany?”
Kaplan also recalls that McGovern himself was painted as a “moderate” in the same sense that Dean apparently hopes he can be. McGovern relied on his opposition to gun control, his support of a strong defense budget, moderate votes as Senator on certain domestic issues, and his impressive World War II record. But none of this mattered because the central issue in the 1972 election was, as it should have been, the role of the U.S. in the world at that moment. Kaplan might have added that Walter Mondale’s efforts in 1984 to portray himself as moderate on key issues similarly were for naught because his position on the big issue in that election — taxes — was anything but moderate.
Meanwhile George McGovern is still around, and Kaplan points out that, in the December issue of Playboy, he has detailed and celebrated the similarities between Dean’s candidacy and his. Kaplan concludes that McGovern “has anointed a successor worthy of the name.”


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