A transforming figure or a blip?

E.J. Dionne argues that the Dean campaign “did something very big,” that its “power lives on,” and that Dean has carved out a major role for himself. Characteristically, Dionne’s piece is confused. Much of it focuses on Dean’s tactics, such as his use of the internet, and I don’t think one can deny that some of these tactics will live on. In that sense, the Dean campaign was important. However, Dionne also seems convinced that Dean’s candidacy was important at a substantive level and that Dean himself has become a big deal. These propositions are more controversial, and Dionne offers little to support them.
The case that Dean’s campaign had substantive importance rests, I should think, on the claim that, because of Dean, the party is to the left of where it otherwise would have been. The case that Dean’s campaign has enduring substantive importance rests on the claim that, in the future, the party will be to the left of where it otherwise would have been because of him. The first claim strikes me as questionable; the second as implausible.
The only important issue on which Dean might be said to have moved his party to the left is the Iraq war. But, in my view, what moved John Kerry and others to the left on this issue was less Howard Dean than the fact that the war lost much of its popularity due to the difficulties our troops have encountered and the failure to find WMD. Kerry never wanted this war; he didn’t even support the first Gulf War. Once it became politically safe to oppose the war, Kerry didn’t need Dean to induce him to do so. In any event, the issue of whether we should have gone to war is largely moot by now. Going forward, I can’t think of a single position that Kerry is taking, or is likely to take, in this election that he is taking because of Dean’s candidacy. Kerry and Dean both come from the “Democratic wing of the Democratic party,” and Kerry has been in that wing much longer than Dean. Kerry’s liberalism is the liberalism of that wing; it has not been borrowed or stolen from Dean.
The Democratic wing will remain important in the future but, again, this will be true with or without Dean. When more than half of the party is hard left, it isn’t difficult to find politicians who will give voice to that leftism. However, Dean proved to be a flawed mouthpiece, so it’s not clear that he will be the preferred one next time. Nor is it clear that, despite the party’s preponderance of leftists, the party will not return to the more centrist Clintonian approach if it loses in 2004. As I suggested a while back, Dean could just as easily become the Democratic Harold Stassen as the Democratic Barry Goldwater.
HINDROCKET adds: I say blip. How is Dean different from any number of flashes in the primary pan–Gary Hart, say? Hart was a “new Democrat” long before Bill Clinton and many others. Now he’s remembered for “Monkey Business” and little else.


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