J. Brady McCollough

At the end of summer and onset of fall, pundits are gearing up for the Democratic presidential primaries. Recently, columnists have churned out a slew of articles profiling, criticizing and praising the candidates. Rating the candidates, writers have given the health insurance gold medal to Kerry, the centrist medal to Lieberman and the leftist medal to Dean.

Absent from all this politicking, however, is discussion on the Democratic strategy. Aside from TIME magazine’s “How to Build a Better Democrat,” no columnist has provided a comprehensive or innovative view of the identity Democrats need to assume in the coming election.

It seems each party is having an identity crisis. George Will, the conservative columnist for the Washington Post, stated, “Foreign and domestic developments constitute an identity crisis of conservatism, which is being recast – and perhaps rendered incoherent.” In an effort to broaden their image, Republicans created an unassailable facade of “compassion,” claiming to be “for” all those typically overlooked by the system: the elderly, minorities, the poor.

A cue for Democrats: To broaden your image, embrace the idea of passionate centrism. A 1997 USA Today story quoted then Governor of Vermont Howard Dean as calling himself a “passionate centrist.” A cursory look at his governorship proves this to be true. And so, Dean’s success, both as a governor (he’s won five consecutive elections) and a presidential candidate, is based on impassioned moderation.

Uncannily, pundits label Dean both as a moderate and also an inflammatory zealot. And this has been the key to his success, his ability to reject the claim that liberals are quixotic coupled with his ability to inspire party activists.

Currently, Dean’s leftism has brought him notoriety, but be prepared to see the real Dean stand up soon. His call for universal healthcare, a call that has liberals lining up to support him, is actually based on a system of tax breaks and “buying into a government plan.” Dean supports tax breaks for corporations to pay for employee health insurance: “Business tax deductions [are] part of a compact between American taxpayers and corporate America.” Other Democrats, like John Kerry, have followed suit in an effort to control costs while purporting the idealistic notion of universal healthcare. (Dean’s healthcare efforts have largely worked in Vermont, which can tout one of the nation’s best health insurance programs.)

Consider Dean’s statement on the death penalty: “I believe the death penalty should be available for extreme and heinous crimes, such as terrorism or the killing of police officers or young children.” Capital punishment does not receive Dean’s unfettered support; he backs the Innocence Protection Act, intended to raise the bar on prosecution procedures. But he remains passionate about his pragmatic approach, appealing to the emotional side of the death penalty (note the reference to national security and family values in the aforementioned quote) but realizing the reality of our judicial proceedings.

During his tenure, Howard Dean has cut taxes and proclaimed states’ rights in gun control. Yet, he has remained a true Democrat on time-honored issues, on expanding a broad slate of social programs and endorsing paid family leave. He has balanced the budget and maintained popularity. How? “By engaging moderates, Democratic and Republican. By rejecting the agenda of the extremes, including his own party,” according to a 2000 editorial in the Burlington Free Press.

This is not an endorsement of Howard Dean. He, like any politician, has his flaws. It is very likely that John Edward’s appeal to the working class (Dean hails from a heritage of investment bankers and was raised on Park Avenue) or John Kerry’s strong stance on national security are more politically advantageous.

Clearly though, Dean has been doing something right, and this, if nothing else, is a cue for Democrats to appropriate some of his political mojo. A challenge for Democrats: How do you speak in ideals (universal healthcare, human rights, an improved education system) and still retain those virtues afforded to conservatives (resolute, fiscally responsible and scrupulous)? Walk like a pragmatist, but talk with passion.

Jean can be reached at acjean@umich.edu.

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