Seeking Consensus During the Terror War

Howard Dean won the online Democratic primary of the progressive activist group MoveOn.org with almost 44 percent of the pixel votes cast. Dennis Kucinich came in second with almost 24 percent. John Kerry, Dick Gephardt and the other duffers trailed dismally. Over 300,000 people participated-more than the number who cast Democratic ballots in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary last time around.

The news that one quarter of online Democrats think a failed former Mayor of Cleveland is fit to be President of the United States is news indeed, though Internet polls always pull for eccentricity. I remember one survey during the 1996 election cycle that showed Bob Dole thrashing Bill Clinton. Mr. Dole was not home-free, however, for he was in a dead heat with the Libertarian candidate. I approve of many libertarian ideas, and I welcome the movement’s influence on public life. But if I bet the farm on a Libertarian Presidential candidate, I will lose the farm.

Howard Dean, meanwhile, is already falling prey to a vicious and idiotic game, so beloved of spinners and the spun-the game of expectations. Formally, Mr. Dean was the online winner. But he missed capturing the automatic endorsement of MoveOn.org’s P.A.C., which was reserved for the candidate who managed to poll a majority of the vote. Did Mr. Dean therefore do less well than expected? Such shadow-puppet plays will be our fare for the next seven or eight months.

Howard Dean, as the former governor of a state with three electoral votes, is, on the face of it, only a few steps further from the knacker’s yard than Dennis Kucinich, yet he has been man of the moment among the Democrats. His very obscurity, and the accompanying lack of inured-to-prime-time mannerisms, help. What helps even more is his appeal to the Democratic left-to what Mr. Dean calls “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

Mr. Dean appeals to this constituency by his superior position on the war in Iraq. Mr. Gephardt, blasphemously, was for it; Mr. Kerry sits on the tips of the fence posts (a position he makes more painful for himself by frequent wriggling). Mr. Dean tells the Democratic left what it wants to hear-fear, carping and doubt.

“The truth is,” Mr. Dean said in a recent talk in San Diego, “it’s a good thing to have Saddam gone. But the other truth is that we went to war without knowing the facts, [and] that our service people are dying now because we went to war without knowing the facts.” The truth is, we knew the truth about Saddam’s nature; the deadly flailings of his diehards is another facet of that truth, along with oppression, terror and war. Saddam did not care for the lives of his subjects; surely his minions will not care for the lives of the soldiers who took him down. Given Mr. Dean’s ignorance of these truths, what weight can we possibly assign to his belief that it’s “a good thing to have Saddam gone”? If we had let Howard Dean lead the search for the facts, Kofi Annan would still be doing shuttle diplomacy in Baghdad, no doubt passing Uday and Qusay in the hallways of their father’s palaces as they hurried from orgy to torture chamber.

Howard Dean may be a lightning bug, a bright but short-lived creature of the summer before election year. But suppose he is a portent? Barry Goldwater, the conservative conviction candidate of the early 1960’s, won his nomination in 1964, and went on to carry only six states. But he transformed the Republican Party for our lifetime. After Bill Clinton’s mini-issues and feints to the right, progressive Democrats wonder when they will get their own Goldwater. Howard Dean may be the great id of his party, rising in rebellion against its shifty Arkansas super-ego.

This has implications for the war on terror. Suppose the Terror War is a lurching series of wars. Perhaps, in the language of Samuel Huntington, it is a clash of civilizations, or perhaps, as Paul Berman thinks, it is a struggle with a death-loving virus that has moved from scientific socialism to national socialism to the perverted heresies of Islam. Either way, suppose we are in for a contest of 20 or 30 years. Over that time, we will see three to six Presidents. George W. Bush will be with us, at the outside, only until January 2009 (if history is any guide, his second term will be mired in controversy and failure). Very likely the White House will change parties two to four times. How can a strategy be pursued over that arc of time and politics?

In practice, official Washington builds up great heads of steam. The separation of powers, by multiplying elections, blunts their effects. In the bureaucracy, the same bottoms shine the same chair seats year in and year out. Yet if a strategy is not to be mere habit, it must be conceptualized in some fashion, and if it is to have a long life, it must be endorsed, in its essentials, by both parties.

Something like that happened during the Cold War. The bipartisan consensus required changes on the part of both Republicans and Democrats. The isolationist and Sinocentric wings of the G.O.P. had to discover Europe, NATO and the Marshall Plan. The party of Roosevelt had to shed F.D.R.’s second Vice President, Henry Wallace, and his Communist wire-pullers. The bipartisan consensus had failures ranging from large to huge, from Iran to Vietnam. But in the end, the Berlin Wall came down.

We need a similar consensus today. Do we have similar Democrats? I am moderately hopeful. I think Al Gore would have done reasonably well post-9/11. Looking no further than New York, I think Chuck Schumer also knows the score. Hillary Clinton certainly has balls; whether she has political skills is another matter.

But perhaps the desire for a bipartisan consensus is nothing more than the wordsmith’s weakness for talking points. Maybe any man or woman who gets a first intelligence briefing as President-elect knows more or less what to do. Then the essential question becomes one of gumption. Bill Clinton, who ran as a not-so-left Democrat, might have been expected to hunt the bad guys without scruple. Yet it was on his watch that we all slept, because he was too timid and poll-driven to wake us. Unlike him, the Howard Deans of this world may have the character to betray their rhetoric.

Seeking Consensus During the Terror War