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Doctoring Dr. Dean

'I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the liberal party.'

By 8.13.03

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Howard Dean really isn't a liberal. I know this because Al Hunt said so.

In his Wall Street Journal column last Thursday Hunt dismissed Democrats who are worried that the rise of Howard Dean means the Democratic Party is "at risk of being taken over by the far left." Rather, Dean is a man who defies the conventions. According to Hunt, Dean's "chief passion is fiscal moderation," and on "some other issues he is to the right of the center of the Democratic party." Indeed, Dean is so not liberal that "Ted Kennedy has cool feelings towards" him.

So why is Al From, chief of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, so down on Dean? Hunt maintains it has nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with power: "After Bill Clinton and Al Gore, Mr. From fancies himself a kingmaker, and Dr. Dean hasn't supped sufficiently at his table."

Here's an alternative theory: In his gut, Hunt knows that in the ways that are likely to count in November 2004, Dr. Dean is a liberal. He's worried that Dean may have gone so far left that the Democrats are headed toward a Mondale-McGovern meltdown. Thus, he (along with a lot of the mainstream media as of late) needs to get a jump on defining Dean as a moderate now, before those awful Bushies have a go at him.

Hunt is right to be worried. The substance for the "Dean is really a moderate" claim comes from his record as Governor. But his days as chief executive of Vermont are likely to be a tangential issue in 2004. What matters more is his strategy for courting primary voters. All Democrats running for President face the same problem: how to appeal to a left-wing base in order to win the primary, and then how to become more moderate to appeal the "Great American Center" in the general election. While Dean's strategy to win the primary is looking more brilliant by the day, it portends disaster for the general.

Currently, Dean's chief passion doesn't appear to be "fiscal moderation" but rather Bush bashing. After all, Dean isn't emphasizing spending restraint in the commercials currently running out here in Iowa. This works wonders now, as the Democratic base is rabidly anti-Bush. But to work in the general, Dean will have to hope for a major drop in Bush's popularity. Given that polls show Bush is still popular with a majority of Americans, that's a lot to hope for.

On taxes, Dean couldn't have done worse than if Karl Rove had somehow managed to brainwash him. By promising to repeal all of the Bush tax cuts, he has permitted the Bush campaign to talk about how much more a middle-class family of four will pay in taxes under a President Dean. Perhaps he could have gotten away with it if he had only promised to raise taxes for upper-income folks, while offering a Clinton-like $300 tax cut for the middle class. Too late now.

On national security, Dean is even worse. Not only did he oppose the war in Iraq, but he has been loose-lipped about it. Upon the death of Uday and Qusay, he creepily hinted that U.S. troops had gone too far when he said, "I think in general the ends do not justify the means." And on the liberation of Baghdad he made the now infamous remark "I guess getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a good thing." This is a cornucopia for whoever writes ad copy for the Bush campaign.

Hunt dismisses this as "simplistic formation." As evidence, he writes that Dean's opposition to the war was mirrored by "such foreign policy heavyweights as Zbigniew Brzezinski and a few leading officials of the first Bush administration." He also notes that Dean "wants to undo the Bush tax cuts and return to the rates that prevailed during the Clinton administration, hailed then by centrists." Can there be a better archetype of the inside-the-Beltway mentality? Apparently Hunt believes that the folks out in Peoria care what Jimmy Carter's national security advisor thinks and will say to themselves, "You mean my taxes will only go up to what they were under Clinton? I'm okay with that."

Howard Dean's strategy for the primary revolves around bashing a popular president and challenging him on two issues, taxes and national security, that will be GOP strengths in the general election. That will make it very easy for the Bushies to paint him as a man of the left. The likes of Al Hunt can argue until the cows come home that Dean really isn't a liberal. That only proves one thing: self-delusion is still the second-most favorite indoor sport.

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David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.