Thursday, December 25, 2003

SEABROOK, N.H., Dec. 23 — Swatting away attacks from all corners in the 10 days since the capture of Saddam Hussein, Howard Dean has returned to the combative posture that propelled his insurgent candidacy to the front of the field this fall. Denunciations of "Washington Democrats" once again dominate his speeches, even as he complains that negativity has taken over the primary campaign.

It is a clear contrast from just two weeks ago when Dr. Dean, buoyed by the backing of several major unions, former Vice President Al Gore and a swelling crowd of elected officials, was beginning to change his style. Smiling more than finger-thrusting, he fancied himself a frontrunner above the fray, experimenting — briefly — with a more moderate tone, as he kept one eye on the general electorate.

But the relentless battering has stymied his effort to look long range, forcing him to hunker down in the final month before the first votes.

This is good news in disguise. I have to admit I was a bit worried as to whether Dean realized how much he would have to move towards the center for the general election, but this makes it clear he does. Actually doing it will still be a challenge, but it would be wrong for him to lose the nomination because he was trying to prematurely ready for the general election.

All the same, all the bloggers who have done great things for Dean need to be ready not merely to accept his swing towards the center but to cheer it on. In particular, he needs to win the votes of at least some of the people who favored the invasion of Iraq. This might not be quite as hard as it seems at first - but merely saying we need to finish what we started isn't enough. He has to give the people who believe in rebuilding Iraq reason to believe he can do it better than Bush. He must speak in language acceptable to those who favored the invasion but are unhappy about subsequent rebuilding efforts. He should talk about how many intelligent people - Democrats as well as Republicans - favored the invasion of Iraq, partly because of misleading information from the Bush administration, and partly because they were lead to believe we were adaquately prepared for the aftermath.

Then he must say that part of the reason Bush can't make the drastic changes needed to succeed in Iraq is because this would involve admitting just how much has been done wrong so far. Bush cannot and will not do this, but Dean can and will. A vote for Dean is a vote for rebuilding Iraq - whether or not you favored the initial invasion.

This is wrong:

Dean says he thought the war was a terrible blunder—a "catastrophic mistake," said Al Gore when endorsing him—but now that we're there, we should stay and see it through. This makes no sense. If the war was a blunder—draining resources and distracting Washington—the smartest thing to do is get out fast. Dean has argued that America must stay in Iraq because it cannot allow the country to become a base for Al Qaeda. But that outcome could easily be avoided by our pulling out and turning the place over to a general or Shiite leader who will also have no interest in having his country become a Qaeda base. Why bother helping in a massive transformation of politics, economics and society in Iraq? In a sense, the most consistent Democrat in the race is not Dean, but Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who says the war was a mistake, so let's leave now.

Some Democrats, like Hillary Clinton and Joseph Lieberman, have criticized the administration for having a worthy goal but doing a good thing badly. And there's much to criticize. The reconstruction has been botched from the start, with too few troops, weak leadership (remember Jay Garner?), self-defeating arrogance and now (at least the appearance of) a cut-and-run transfer of power. It has produced problems that were predictable—indeed were predicted. But to make this critique effectively, the Democrats have to buy into the basic goal of Iraq policy. If Howard Dean has his way, the party of Woodrow Wilson will be decidedly uninterested in the most Wilsonian project in recent history.

OK, maybe the second paragraph is right. But the first paragraph is silly. There is no general or Shiite leader who has the power to prevent Al Qaeda from using Iraq as a base - or even from splintering into bloody civil war. Part of our goal must be damage control - preventing a horrible bloody civil war following our retreat which would put nails in the coffin of US prestige. Those who lead us in there without preparation don't have the calm determination to get us out without leaving such a civil war in our wake. Unfortunately, blindly lashing out without preparation for the consequences is a natural human response to fear and anger - and Bush and his advisors have successfully tapped into that vein. Dean must successfully win the support of those who do not fully realize how they have been lead around, not so much by Bush as by their own emotions, which as far as I know Bush and his advisors sincerely shared.

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