Petulance is seldom considered a prime presidential attribute. George W. Bush’s smirk notwithstanding, Americans prefer adults as Presidents. That makes the poisonous attacks unleashed on Howard Dean by other contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination doubly noxious. These desperate Democrats are writing the script for Bush’s future TV ads in unfounded assaults on Dean while providing ample evidence to Democratic voters that they are unfit to lead.

The current round of vitriol was sparked by Dean’s statement that the capture of Saddam Hussein makes America no safer. The only thing notable about that statement is its common sense. A top US commander in Iraq had just declared that Saddam’s capture would make no difference one way or another. All sensate observers agree that the war on Iraq has been a distraction from combating terrorism–draining intelligence, resources and political attention. To reinforce the point, the Department of Homeland Security, concerned about chatter implying a new terror assault, has just placed America on high alert for the holidays. Joe Lieberman, John Kerry and Dick Gephardt are scoring Dean for stating the obvious.

Lieberman has issued the most personal assaults. Like the Democratic Leadership Council that he once chaired, Liebermanseems energized only when he is assailing other Democrats. No doubt Lieberman, leading in the polls at the beginning of the campaign, is bitter at his fall. It isn’t surprising that Democrats, including Al Gore, have abandoned Lieberman, the champion of pre-emptive war, trade deficits, stock options and Medicare privatization. Dean has soared precisely by daring to challenge Bush (and thus Lieberman) on the central choices facing America. Surely Lieberman might have chosen a more graceful exit than hurling false charges at his most successful opponent.

Sadly, John Kerry too has become shriller as his stock has declined. Dean displaced Kerry as the liberal standard-bearer by speaking clearly against the war on Iraq. Kerry argued cogently against that war until he voted to give Bush a blank check to wage it. He then spent months struggling to explain his incoherence to voters and seemed depleted from the effort. It is preposterous for Kerry now to indict Dean for being all over the place on Iraq. His jeremiads might better be issued to his mirror.

These politicians are acting like children throwing their marbles at the one who beat them. In this, they display their bitterness not simply at Dean but at the growing legions of Democratic voters who support him. In Washington, the pros worry that these attacks can only help Bush if Dean gains the nomination. But the energy unleashed by the remarkable Dean campaign will continue to grow.

And no matter who gets the nomination, the real question of the election will be whether voters want to fire George Bush or not. Remember, the last insurgent Democrat to win, Bill Clinton, was introduced to most Americans as a man who cheated on his wife, claimed he didn’t inhale, ducked the draft and wore boxers, not briefs. Clinton won because voters wanted to get rid of George the First. And like Clinton but unlike his petulant opponents, Dean will at least remind voters clearly of why getting rid of George the Second is equally necessary.