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The good doctor?
Dr. Howard Dean’s fans come out for the big Democratic summer shindig
BY LANCE TAPLEY

As Tom Andrews, the director of the leading national antiwar coalition, began his speech at the Maine Democrats’ big outdoor summer shindig in Falmouth, John Baldacci signaled his bodyguard/driver to move the large, dark SUV up the driveway.

The vehicle soon hid in the trees, its engine quietly humming. At first, the governor seemed to be paying attention as Andrews, the former First District congressman, launched into rousing tales of how the country, under President George W. Bush, had gone "from peace and prosperity to war and recession."

Soon, Baldacci began edging his way up the driveway. Many of the 130 party stalwarts couldn’t help glance at their cautious, conservative governor sneaking away, somewhat impolitely, from the fiery, liberal keynote speaker. In a matter of seconds, everyone heard the door close and the official state vehicle rumble off.

This scene symbolizes the divisions in the Democratic Party as the presidential election year approaches. The divisions are particularly significant because, for the first time since September 11, 2001, it seems Democrats have a chance to retake the White House. Republican Bush’s stratospheric poll numbers have fallen to earth as he has failed to extricate himself from charges that he misled Americans over why the nation needed to invade Iraq — and as the economy has continued to shamble along.

In a sprawling, big-tent party, the Democrats’ divisions are perennial or at least quadrennial. They exist in both hearts and minds. In terms of emotions, there is the tug between liberals and conservatives. At the moment, antiwar liberals and obey-the-commander-in-chief conservatives are tugging hard at each other. There also is a related division in political calculations. Shouldn’t we choose a presidential candidate who can demonstrate a real difference from the Republicans? On the other hand, shouldn’t we choose a candidate who appeals to the nonideological independents at the center of American politics, who determine most important elections?

One mustn’t make too much of the difference between Baldacci and Andrews. Although Baldacci’s fiscal conservatism rankles many legislative Democrats, last fall he voted against going to war with Iraq when he was still in the US House. Because much of the country is more conservative than Maine, the Maine party’s divisions are small compared to the divisions within some state parties. And they are miniscule compared to, say, the difference between Maine and Texas Democrats. That difference mirrors a vast, geographically based cultural divide.

Concerned with this divide, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, a national group that helped Bill Clinton obtain the presidency, recently warned Democratic primary voters to stay away from people like former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, the increasingly popular, antiwar, alternative-energy-promoting, pro-universal-health-care candidate (and he wants to repeal Bush’s tax cut to fund universal health care).

Andrews, who in Washington leads the organization Win Without War, has a different political analysis from the Democratic Leadership Council’s.

"The progressives are the heart and soul of the party," he said in an interview after his speech. "We can’t lose the base. And, on any single issue that matters, the public is with us by a wide margin. Compromising our principles is a recipe for disaster."

By contrast, State Representative Lawrence Bliss of South Portland, an avowed liberal who thinks Andrews is "quite an amazing guy" and whose "heart is for Howard Dean," worries about the electability of someone like Dean.

"We’re a country of centrist candidates," he said. In his view, Dean would be tough for the electorate to accept — whereas, he said, Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut United States senator who was presidential nominee Al Gore’s running mate in 2000 and who is the most conservative among Democratic aspirants, "will be a strong candidate."

Dean, though, may be a special case. Is he just a liberal? The New York Times recently ran a front-page story, "Defying Labels Left or Right, Dean’s ’04 Run Makes Gains," on how he has both liberal and conservative positions. In Vermont, he cut taxes and forced many on welfare to work. "One of the secrets to Dr. Dean’s success was keeping the most liberal politicians in check," the Times reporter wrote.

Is it possible that Dean could bridge the divisions in the country as well as in the party?

HEART AND SOUL OF THE PARTY

"Hope I didn’t embarrass you," Andrews said to the new Democratic Party chair, Dorothy Melanson, as he left the event.

He needn’t have worried. At this 46th Annual Muskie Lobsterbake on Sunday, August 3, held under two big tents outside Melanson’s large home on a back lane in the cushy Falmouth woods, Andrews was greeted as a hero.

A fundraiser that attracted big givers, big workers, and legislators, the fête was inaugurated by Edmund S. Muskie, long-time US senator and a Secretary of State under President Jimmy Carter, back when Democrats were just beginning to rival the long-dominant Maine Republican Party.

Baldacci, US Representatives Tom Allen and Michael Michaud, and Pat Colwell, speaker of the Maine House, each talked briefly. Baldacci, who has been linked with a Christian cult, began with "God bless us all." Near the end, he even blessed Tom Andrews. The politicians gave smiley pep talks, and Melanson was practically gang-mugged with kisses and hugs. Each officeholder received a warm response from the loyal and well watered assembly.

But Andrews, the final speaker, stirred up the crowd with his attack on Bush — who, to put it gently, is loathed by these Democrats.

"Most nauseating is the deceit and deception of this administration," Andrews shouted in his evangelical style, sweating profusely. "They are attacking democracy itself! It’s all about sloganeering and marketing."

Then, dramatically lowering his voice and bringing quiet to the crowd: "They did this, too, about the decision to go to war, the most sobering, serious decision a country can make. And the more we know about the basis of that decision, the more we know it was based upon a lie!"

This line got tremendous applause. Even Andrews’s mere mention that he directs Win Without War drew strong applause.

Win Without War is a coalition that includes the Sierra Club, the NAACP, and the National Council of Churches. After failing to dissuade Bush from invading Iraq, the group has demanded a thorough investigation of the president’s claims of why the United States had to go to war, including his central claim that America was imperiled by Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, which have not been found.

If the Democrats don’t replace Bush, Andrews declared in closing, "our kids will never forgive us. Nor should they!"

The group rose as one, cheering. Although Democratic activists may accept winning candidates like Baldacci who constantly look to their right, in Maine they are mostly liberal. Otherwise, Melanson wouldn’t have invited Andrews to be the keynote speaker. With a few exceptions, the ideological division here was between officeholders like Baldacci who must present themselves to the general electorate —- and everyone else.

SO FAR, DEAN RULES

At this liberal gathering, one might have concluded that Howard Dean was close to sewing up Maine’s Democrats (with surgical thread, perhaps; he’s an MD). Although the New Hampshire presidential primary isn’t until January 27, 2004, and Maine’s Democratic caucuses are on February 8, and many activists are uncommitted or only "leaning," the candidate that lots of people were leaning toward was Dean. It took work to find people heavily interested in other candidates.

Patricia Schroth of Sedgwick, a Maine Democratic activist since the 1970s, related how 300 "wildly enthusiastic" Dean supporters had met the candidate in Bangor the previous Friday, an extraordinary number for Bangor in the summertime almost a year and a half before the presidential election.

She felt Democrats should choose Dean to fight off the Greens, who would approve of his antiwar and other progressive stands. Thus, Greens would be less tempted to field or support their own candidate. Many Democrats blame Green presidential nominee Ralph Nader for drawing enough support from Gore to elect Bush.

Gwethalyn Phillips, the former state party chair who coordinates Dean’s campaign in Maine, did not volunteer the "w" word when asked why her man was already so popular.

"People like his style," she said. "He speaks very plainly. People have a hunger to feel a community again. They like what he did for jobs in Vermont" — and so on.

But what about his early and strong opposition to Bush’s war with Iraq? Most Dean supporters talk about it as their touchstone for allegiance. It contrasts him with some other leading Democratic candidates.

"Oh, absolutely," she replied, turning the subject again to Dean’s style or character. "He wasn’t trying to figure out where he’d stand based on the polls."

A political pro (she is running for the Democratic National Committee slot vacated by Melanson), Phillips was tossing out the current Dean-campaign line. Among other goals, it attempts to make him more than an antiwar candidate.

Massachusetts US Senator John Kerry appears to be second to Dean in Maine. He seemed close to obtaining the adherence of Stephen Rowe, the state attorney general. "He’s pretty liberal, but he has a military background," Rowe said. "I haven’t committed, but his brother asked me to support him."

Tom Allen said he believes that, nationally, it will come down to Dean, Kerry, and congressman Richard Gephardt, the former House minority leader. Allen, like the Second District’s Michael Michaud, has not committed to a candidate —- which cannot be encouraging to his friend Gephardt.

There was some support for other candidates. A Westbrook city councilor, Brendan Rielly, said his heart was with North Carolina US Senator John Edwards because "he’s a trial lawyer like myself, and the trial lawyers stick up for the little guy."

US Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio had a small cell of supporters. Kucinich may be the most to the left of the presidential candidates, although former US Senator Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and the Reverend Al Sharpton, the New York civil-rights activist, are crowded into that end of the field. Florida US Senator Bob Graham is also running, making nine candidates.

A conservative-to-moderate Democrat who might be expected to back Lieberman or Gephardt is former legislator and party chair Barry Hobbins, a lobbyist-lawyer from Saco. At the Falmouth event, he said he was still "observing" the race.

He believed, though, that Dean "was doing all the right things. He’s running TV ads in Austin, Texas, where the national media are." (A flock of the news media accompanies George W. Bush to his broiling Texas summer vacation.) "It’s political guerilla tactics," he added with appreciation.

"I don’t think he’s a liberal, to be honest with you," Hobbins observed of the Vermonter. His observation was perhaps a sign of Dean’s potential broad appeal.

WHAT IS NEEDED TO WIN?

Democratic activists make a point of saying they will unite behind whoever is the presidential nominee. "Bush has united this party like no other person could," said Phillips. She pointed out that, in 1992, Bill Clinton didn’t win the Maine caucuses (Jerry Brown did), but the party here closed around Clinton for the general election, and he took the state.

But this theory doesn’t give enough recognition to the non-Democrats who voted for Clinton. Independents in Maine outnumber Democrats and Republicans. To win, Democrats here and elsewhere need not only to have a candidate who appeals widely to members of their party but also to independents and some Republicans. The Democratic Leadership Council expresses a truism: A presidential candidate has to have broad appeal.

Tom Andrews insisted such a candidate doesn’t have to be —- and shouldn’t be —- a pale version of a Republican.

"We’re in a desperate situation," he said, speaking of the party. "We need a renaissance. Three or four months ago, I was engaging in debates with Democrats who were saying we had to cede the war to the president."

Andrews felt certain that Democrats couldn’t win just on economics. The party must take strong stands on the war-and-peace issues, he said. These dominate the news and everybody’s conversations.

The candidate should be someone who can stand up to the resources of an incumbent president, added Portland State Senator Mike Brennan. He believes, like Andrews, that the people are with the Democrats on the issues, "but [the people] haven’t found a candidate to articulate them against the constant force of the presidency."

Brennan said he is "leaning toward Dean or Kerry." Like many others, he sees Dean as "a little eclectic," both a progressive and a conservative. "He’s a pragmatist." He cited Dean’s support of civil unions for gays and, on the other hand, his opposition to strict gun-control laws.

It’s going to be tough, though, for anyone to beat Bush, he and most Democrats agree.

Tom Allen thought Bush only would be vulnerable if, next year, "Iraq is not going well . . . and, number two, his economic policies are failing."

More ominously, congressman Michaud observed: "This president is going to bring out whatever issues — whether [it’s] another war — to get what he needs."

With all these dynamics, the Democrats have their work cut out. To win and to have a meaningful win, to rally their troops and to rally the electorate at large, it seems they need a candidate who is both liberal and conservative, both highly principled and highly electable.

A tall order, but some would say this sounds a bit like Howard Dean.

"He’s running a brilliant campaign," Andrews opined. "He came from nowhere to the cover of Newsweek. He’s an intriguing candidate. It’s hard to pigeonhole him. Progressives are rallying around him, but he has a commitment to a balanced budget. Compare that to the fiscal radicalism of Bush, which assaults the sensibilities of many conservatives.

"Dean appears to have convictions. They go a long way. Look at Ronald Reagan. He was to the right of the country, but he was convincing because he had convictions. Bush has no convictions and he’s dishonest."

It will indeed be tough to beat Bush, but some Democrats are beginning to see a way.

Lance Tapley can be reached at ltapley@prexar.com


Issue Date: August 8 - 14, 2003
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