Dr. Dean’s Momentum

News reports about former Vice President Al Gore’s endorsement of Howard Dean have, in my opinion, placed far too much weight on its role in placing an establishment and centrist imprimatur on the former Vermont governor’s presidential aspirations.

Dean, to be sure, was not widely known before this year, and his fiery opposition to the war in Iraq and, to a much lesser extent, his signing of the nation’s only same-sex civil union law have created concern among some Democrats that he would make too left-leaning of a candidate in the November election. But, establishment endorsements really don’t have all that much traction in election races, and it’s not much easier to figure out whether Gore is a centrist or a populist than is the case with Dean.

Yet, Gore’s endorsement of Dean was a genuinely electrifying event and I think the reason is that, for tens of millions of Americans, the former vice president was the legitimate winner of the 2000 election. People understand at some gut level how freighted Gore’s choice of a candidate in this race is, and the emotional heft of his endorsement––especially on the issues of Iraq and mobilizing voters––was impressive. Gore said Dean “was the only major candidate who made the correct judgment about the Iraq war” and also “the only candidate who has been able to inspire at the grassroots level all over this country the kind of passion and enthusiasm for democracy and change and transformation of America that we need in this country.”

On the heels of his fundraising, strength in the polls, and recent union endorsements, Dean’s successful courting of Gore clearly makes him the man to beat, if that’s still possible, in the Democratic race. But, if Dean, or any Democrat, is to unseat George Bush, the party will need to continue making progress on several fronts. First, all the Democratic candidates have to do a far better job of engaging the American people, something on which the marathon of nine-candidate debates have failed utterly. Dean has brilliantly tapped donors and volunteers via the Internet, but at least until the field narrows, he will have to find ways besides the debates to reach out to broader segments of the electorate.

On foreign policy, the Democrats have done a better job of undermining confidence in Bush’s leadership than in explaining specifically what they will do different in the future, as opposed to the past. Any new terrorist incident would likely rally Americans once again around the flag, so any Democrat who hopes to be president must articulate a vision about our role in the world and the fundamental challenges posed by 9/11.

How the economy will play out in the election is unclear. Growth is up and Wall Street is more buoyant, but jobs continue to lag. Democrats need to start a conversation about underlying issues of fairness. It is more important that Democrats explain the regressive nature of the Bush tax cuts than demand their complete repeal, especially cuts that help middle class Americans. With his recent endorsements by the service workers’ union and Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., Dean is showing increased vigor in outreach to people of color communities, but as City Councilmember Philip Reed, who endorsed him as well this week, emphasized, a more detailed urban agenda must be articulated if the Democrats are to energize core voter groups next fall.

On social and cultural issues, from gay rights to abortion to the environment, Democrats must more clearly draw a line between their progressive vision and Bush’s debts to the right wing. Dean has shown progress on same-sex marriage, now calling for federal recognition of Massachusetts marriage, even if not a fully federal approach. He also makes a habit of terming Bush not conservative, but rather “radical.” If he is to win the nomination and the general election next fall, he will likely have to make Americans understand precisely what he means when he says that.

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