As Republican pundits from Bill Kristol to Andrew Sullivan try to muffle their glee at the prospect of Dr. Dean as the Democratic nominee, cool heads of the Democratic Party have long since made the following political calculation:
Proposition the first: Barring catastrophe, there is not the slightest chance of beating Bush in 2004.
The second: No serious person wants the sort of catastrophe which could leave Bush vulnerable or worse.
The third: No serious person will seek the top spot on the Democratic ticket facing almost certain defeat.
The fourth: Democratic Party activists -- tin foil hats, Michael Moore fan club memberships, Moveon.org charter members, psych degrees, Boston, Berkeley, Seattle -- have not had a presidential candidate since 1988.
Therefore: Time for Children's Hour.
The present Democratic Party is an uneasy coalition of naïveté and sophistication, idealism and calculation. It manages to team smart union and city machine politicians with social activists and tree huggers. Black, lesbian, Burning Man attendees rub shoulders with fine old Savannah patricians who have yet to forgive Lincoln.
To maintain these alliances, the Party has to balance the necessity of achieving power with a willingness to act as a focal point for the assorted idealisms and group identities which represent a significant fraction of its electoral support and, perhaps, a majority of its activists.
For the professionals -- the Clintons, the Gores, Bill Bradley and so on -- real power matters. To attain power, the professionals know they have to keep the amateurs committed without actually inviting them to the table.
Thus: Howard Dean.
The doctor and his supporters are the last in a string of no-hopers stretching back to Gene McCarthy and running though George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis.
By endorsing Dean, the pros are quarantining the activist wing for the real election in 2008. When Dean fights the good fight and loses -- big or small; but loses -- it will be a snap for Hillary, Al, and the rest of them to, shedding crocodile tears, hail him as the heart of the Democratic Party and then get on with the serious race for the 2008 nomination.
And make no mistake: 2008 is a genuine opportunity for the Democrats. Bush will be gone with no obvious successor. If the economy is booming there will be room for arguments about redistribution, if it tanks, the Republican record of deficit spending will be ripe for attack. No matter how well the War on Terror and Iraq go, the public will be tired of orange alert after alert.
But the American electorate as a whole will not be the least bit interested in an anti-war, multi-lateralist, tax-raising Democrat in the Dean mold. Dem pros know this and are working hard to position the party to take full advantage of Bush's departure. Which means sidelining the activists and running a candidate who can win.
The pros also know how big the stakes are in 2008. It may be the last best chance of stopping the Republicans from becoming the natural governing party. And a damn close-run thing it will be. If the Democratic activists defected to a resurgent Green Party in any numbers -- and Dean implicitly suggested that if he did not win his supporters would find a new home -- the Republicans will further entrench their still-shaky majority status.
So, while Republican bigs may relish a real fight, with real positions, over the next ten months, the Democratic pros have moved on. The kids are going to have their chance -- as they do every generation -- to run a big-time campaign on their most heartfelt issues. They'll have enough money to make it feel like the real thing and they will even have professional politicians endorsing their candidate.
And when they lose, the pros will be able to say, "You did a great job. Really. Now, anyone who has learned anything come onboard." If the Children's Hour works, former Deanies, older and a bit chastened, will realize winning, not ideological purity, is what matters in politics. And the Democratic Party will have seasoned another generation of pros.