Can Dean sustain his rallying cry on the war?

December 19, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - With deposed dictator Saddam Hussein now in captivity, front-running Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean is faced with intensified pressures to sustain his anti-war posture.

His declaration that Americans are "no safer" with the Iraqi dictator a prisoner has brought the other Democratic hopefuls down on him like a swarm of locusts.

The comment brushes aside the possibility that Mr. Hussein in custody could loosen many Iraqi tongues heretofore locked in silence, producing useful intelligence against those continuing to fight.

But in terms of the physical danger to Americans at home, what matters is the state of homeland security, and it will continue to be a Dean target. He was sharply critical of the Bush administration on that front in his major foreign policy speech in Los Angeles the other day.

Mr. Hussein's capture has nothing to do, either, with the former Vermont governor's basic case that President Bush erred in launching the pre-emptive Iraq invasion without explicit U.N. sanction, and without the participation of so many major member states.

But his arguments that several of his congressional opponents for the Democratic nomination never should have voted for the Bush war resolution, or that the president hyped faulty intelligence about the threat to the United States to sell the invasion, could start to grow stale as time passes.

Further, Mr. Hussein's capture is likely to diminish for a time public impatience with the pace of the military's ability to curb the violence in Iraq, sustained by the continuing American casualties there. That impatience has helped fuel Dr. Dean's anti-war pitch.

The post-invasion chaos had encouraged not only Dr. Dean but also all of the other eight Democratic presidential contenders to criticize Mr. Bush sharply. It will not be surprising now if those others who backed his war resolution will let up a bit if they see the president's popularity rise in the wake of the capture.

But Dr. Dean no doubt will persevere because his anti-war posture remains the heart of his support among the liberal Democratic activists and the hordes of new voters who were brought by that posture into political involvement. Whether he can continue to expand that base if the U.S. casualty rate drops is a key question.

Dr. Dean continues to argue that the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with the war on terrorism because there was no evidence that Mr. Hussein had anything to do with the attacks of Sept. 11, which even Mr. Bush has acknowledged.

But Dr. Dean has been obliged to admit that Iraq has become what Mr. Bush has called "the central front in the war on terrorism." Dr. Dean blames the president for that development, but it's indisputable now that Iraq is indeed the centerpiece of that war.

So it may seem to many voters that Dr. Dean is beating a dead horse in continuing to harp on the premises, and origins, of the invasion. Yet in the end, that is what most clearly distinguishes him - and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark - from the other major candidates in the field.

The core of Dr. Dean's candidacy remains the argument that President Bush started a hugely costly and diversionary war that wasn't necessary, at the expense of single-mindedly pursuing the necessary war on terrorism.

If the American economy were continuing to go south, all of the Democratic candidates might be tempted to switch the focus of their campaigns to that issue. But the slight improvement as seen in employment and the stock market climb appears not to offer them much traction there.

In any event, once the public euphoria over the capture of the Butcher of Baghdad levels off, the campaign focus inevitably will swing back to the war on terrorism and how it is being fought.

And as that happens, Dr. Dean will have the chance to recover from whatever momentary setback he may have encountered by the high drama of Mr. Hussein found in a spider hole.

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

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