What Party Elders Overlook in Dean

Dem bigwigs may scorn his campaign, but his ability to attract young and other disenfranchised voters could be just what the party needs

By Howard Gleckman

Why on earth has Howard Dean generated so much enmity from the Democratic political Establishment? Two reasons: He hasn't shown the proper deference to those he calls -- with more than a touch of contempt -- Washington Democrats. The other is that Dean is dangerous, subversive even, for the party's congressional incumbents.

Most of these insiders are convinced that Dean is destined to be crushed in November. And they may well be right. Of all the Democratic candidates, he has the greatest chance of not just losing but being blown out by George W. Bush. But the pugnacious ex-governor of Vermont might also have the best chance to beat Bush. Either way, he may not be much use to many sitting congressional Democrats. And right now they're much more worried about their own survival than electing a President.


  The Establishment Dems, who lean to retired General Wesley Clark and Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.), would rather see a candidate who will lose respectably to Bush than one whose candidacy is as much a roll of the dice as Dean's. Congressional incumbents would be far more comfortable with a mainstream Dem who can help them in traditional ways, such as drawing crowds and raising money.

The nightmare scenario for Capitol Hill pols: The outspoken Dean utters a campaign gaffe that's amplified and spread, like political poison, by the Bush public relations machine. Then, few Dems, especially in the South and West, will want to share a stage with the Vermonter. Consider Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, who faces a tough reelection campaign in South Dakota. If Dean is behind by 10 points in October, Daschle may want to call out the border patrol to keep him out of town.

Unnerving, perhaps, if you're in the party Establishment. But Democratic elders and incumbents may be missing something important. For all his outspokenness, Dean is also the only Democrat who has shown signs of broadening the party's appeal to those millions of people who, until now, would rather get a tooth pulled than show up at a polling place.


  Dean's message to voters: "Only you have the power..." seems to be catching on, not just with Americans in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who have felt disenfranchised from politics but also among rank-and-file Dems. His candidacy is unfolding in much the same way that Arnold Schwarzenegger lit a fire under California surfer dudes who had never before seen the inside of a polling booth. Dean's firebrand populism has these political outsiders sending money and chatting on the Web. If he can get them to vote, Dean may really be on to something.

Former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, himself a past Democratic Presidential candidate who recently endorsed Dean, has figured out what party insiders haven't. With turnout below 50% in Presidential elections, millions of potential voters are up for grabs. It's the Democratic Party that has the best chance to win them over. But without that infusion of new blood, the party will be trapped like a hamster on treadmill, frantically running in place to hang on to those seniors, minorities, and women who form the old party base.

Yes, Dean may be the riskiest of the Democratic hopefuls. But he also offers the party its best chance of breaking through the red state/blue state, 50/50 split in the popular vote that has thrown modern-day Presidential elections into gridlock.

Gleckman is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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