As was evident during the most recent episode of the Democratic Party’s Star Search–a meeting in Washington of the Democratic National Committee, where most of the presidential contenders spoke–here’s what each of the party’s 2004 candidates need at this early point in the race:
Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean: More time as a second-tier candidate so he can continue to make progress under the radar.
Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut: A reason why Democrats should give a damn about his future.
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts: The war to come and go quickly.
Representative Richard Gephardt of St. Louis: Reconsideration.
Senator John Edwards of North Carolina: An agent in Hollywood.
Former Senator Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois: A rationale for running other than becoming another first.
Representative Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland: A function button on his laptop to remove references to FDR.
Provocateur-turned-activist Al Sharpton: His own television show.
Dean, as the buzz-watchers agree, generated the most positive vibes at the gathering. He hit the podium with a sharp declaration: “What I want to know is why in the world the Democratic Party leadership is supporting the president’s unilateral attack on Iraq?” He then blasted the party’s leaders for not challenging President Bush on whether there should be any new tax cuts; for obsessing over a patients’ bill of rights rather than “standing up” for providing health care insurance for all; and for going along with Bush’s “Leave No Child Behind” education legislation, which he claimed would leave behind “every student, every teacher and every school board.” After this machine-gun opening, he paused and said, “I’m Howard Dean and I’m here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” Cue the applause? Actually, applause lights were not needed. Many in the crowd jumped up and cheered.
Using that old Paul Wellstone line, Dean–who is the first to say that as a balanced-budget fanatic he is not a “Wellstone liberal”–provoked one of the strongest reactions of the two-day candidate-tasting. He went on to extoll his record (balancing budgets in Vermont, expanding a state health program so that essentially every child up to the age of 18 receives health coverage, conserving hundreds of thousands of acres of public land, signing legislation that established legal civil unions for gay and lesbian couples) and whacked Bush and the Republicans for cynically and falsely using the word “quotas” to attack affirmative action. (“White folks in the South driving with Confederate decals on the back of pickup trucks ought to be voting with us, not them, because their kids don’t have health insurance either.”) Dean finished up by proclaiming that the task for Democrats is not merely succeeding in 2004: “Is this party about the next election, or is it about changing America?..Only by changing America will we win back the White House.” More applause. Much more.