`Achilles' heel' might cause Dean to stumble

November 14, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Now that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has won the endorsements of two of the nation's largest labor unions -- representing service and governmental employees -- his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination are grasping for some kind of life preserver.

Temporarily, at least, they latched onto his recent gaffe involving pickup truck drivers flaunting Confederate flags to charge him with insensitivity to blacks and Southern whites and with having a loose and thus dangerous tongue. In the weeks ahead, his foes can be counted on to jump on any similar slip or slur to argue that Mr. Dean's penchant for speaking first and thinking afterward reveals a lack of discipline that would make him unsuitable for the presidency.

In doing so, they will be guided by presidential campaign history. There's a phenomenon in politics in which a comment or event can encapsulate an impression about a public figure that makes voters uneasy or mistrustful, to the detriment of that politician's chances of success.

It is best illustrated by the difficulty encountered by Republican Gov. George W. Romney of Michigan when in 1967 he was exploring his chances for his party's presidential nomination. A most affable but also most indecisive sort, he was having great difficulty clearly articulating his position on the Vietnam War when, after a trip to Vietnam, he said on a radio show that he had been "brainwashed" by American generals there. Almost at once, his presidential hopes went down the drain as many voters concluded his offhand remark was evidence he could not be counted on to make up his own mind on critical issues.

A somewhat similar misfortune befell then Democratic Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts, a foe of capital punishment, when he was asked in a 1988 presidential campaign debate what he would do if his wife were raped and killed. Instead of responding forcefully, he gave a vapid answer in opposition to the death penalty. It was an answer that seemed to confirm he was an unemotional cold fish, and his chances of winning were probably put to rest.

More than two decades earlier, Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater's observations on the use of nuclear weapons and making Social Security voluntary and his remark that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" earned him a reputation as undependable or even unstable. He was snowed under by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

Similarly, Robert F. Kennedy's steely management of his brother's political ambitions led him to be labeled "ruthless," which later was confirmed for many when he entered the 1968 race on the heels of Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy's strong showing against LBJ in the New Hampshire primary. Then there was the "Tricky Dick" nickname laid on Richard M. Nixon for his hard-nosed campaign tactics, leading to the running Democratic gag: "Would you buy a used car from this man?"

Republican Dan Quayle's string of verbal goofs as a candidate and vice president in 1988 and 1992 put reporters on what he labeled a "gaffe patrol" that helped scuttle his 1996 GOP presidential bid. And in 2000, Democrat Al Gore's exaggerations and fibs generated damaging Republican allegations that he was untrustworthy.

What Mr. Dean has called his "Achilles' heel" has not yet reached any decisive stage that might derail his presidential hopes. But the recent well-publicized remark about the Confederate flag was the sort of glitch that sets tongues wagging. Accordingly, he will have to be more on guard not to give his rivals more ammunition with which to sell their argument that Howard Dean is too insensitive, arrogant or reckless to be president.

Mr. Dean can be certain that if he gives them such bullets, they will fire them at him. Not many committed Dean supporters are likely to be swayed by this tactic, but it could undercut him with undecided primary voters and in the general election against President Bush, if Mr. Dean gets that far.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau and appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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