Dean keeps flame alive

February 23, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, in his withdrawal speech to the faithful the other day, again noted with pride his small-donor base as among the more significant aspects of his campaign.

"One quarter of all our people who gave us money were under 30 years old in this campaign," Dr. Dean said. "I have not seen that happen since I was under 30 years old, and that was a long time ago."

The reference appeared to be to 1968, when Dr. Dean, in fact, was under 20, and when another Democrat sought, like Dr. Dean, to depose another sitting president, but in that case one of his own party.

The long-shot who made history then, similarly motivated by opposition to another war of choice, was Sen. Eugene McCarthy, of Minnesota. He led a youth brigade of his own against the Vietnam War by challenging President Lyndon B. Johnson in the New Hampshire primary.

Mr. McCarthy's under-30 recruits, rather than raising millions as the young Deaniacs did, shaved their long hair and beards and went door-to-door, nearly beating LBJ, who soon after announced he would not run again.

Mr. McCarthy's effort, like Dr. Dean's, ultimately fell short when another anti-war candidate, Sen. Robert Kennedy, moved in on him. Thereafter, though the war went on, Mr. McCarthy seemed to lose interest and essentially walked away from the thousands of young Americans to whom he had become an icon.

This time around, Dr. Dean has told his young troops that he intends somehow to keep their dream alive, not only of unseating President Bush but also by maintaining their grass-roots organization "to transform the Democratic Party and to change our country."

He inferred it would be a sort of pressure group on the party during the 2004 campaign, observing that "we will not be above ... letting our nominee know that we expect them [sic] to adhere to the standards that this organization has set for decency, honesty, integrity and standing up for ordinary American working people."

That comment hardly conveyed the conventional throwing-in-the-towel in the cause of party unity. It was pretty bold stuff from a candidate who had just been shut out of 17 straight primaries and caucuses. If Dr. Dean were playing poker, he would seem to be holding a very small pair. Except that the eventual Democratic nominee will dearly love those unprecedented Internet contributions made by the Dean recruits, not to mention their votes in November.

As Dr. Dean presented the vision of his refocused organization the other day, there also seemed to be a strong element of continuing his own war on "Democrats in Washington." He could not resist a dig at those who backed Mr. Bush's war resolution and tax cuts.

"We have demonstrated to other Democrats that it is a far better strategy to stand up against the right-wing agenda of George W. Bush than it is to cooperate with it," he lectured. It may have been a valid point, but probably not the best way to breed a new intraparty partnership in the months ahead.

Dr. Dean also expressed uncommon interest in having a voice at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in late July, urging his supporters to use the remaining primaries "to send progressive delegates" there. He also pledged "our enormous grass-roots network" to back supportive members of Congress in their primary contests and in the fall election. "There are a lot of ways to make change," he said at one point.

The real question is whether, after Dr. Dean's own dismal showing as a vote-getter, his followers' devotion to him will remain strong enough for him to keep them in the ranks in support of the cause, rather than of the man. Early post-mortems indicate considerable doubts about Dr. Dean's personal abilities as a leader once adversity hit the campaign, generated by some of his own misstatements and overheated stump style.

But unlike Mr. McCarthy in 1968, Dr. Dean says he is not going away and neither is his organization. In 1968, the Vietnam War kept Mr. McCarthy's troops marching without him. Now, will a politically-diminished Dean's drive to change the party be enough to keep the Deaniacs in formation?

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

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