The first time I ever saw Howard Dean, he was looking very lonely.
The occasion was the first presidential candidates debate in 1996, when the
dead-in-the-water Bob Dole faced off in Hartford, Conn., with President Clinton.
After the debate, I spent a couple of hours in "Spin Alley," an open area in
the huge press room where luminaries from the major parties, including the t
hen little-known governor of Vermont, gathered to give their impressions about
the event we just witnessed.
The Democrats had the idea of having each of their celebrity spinners
accompanied by an aide, who held a sign with their man's name so as to alert the
media to their presence. But while you had to elbow your way through determined
throngs of scribblers to get nose to nose with various governors, senators and
members of the Cabinet present, the path to the governor of the Green Mountain State
Dean's aide waved his sign in vain, but few, if any, members of the media
cared to talk to him that night, leaving the scrappy physician-turned-politician
on the sidelines, looking as forlorn and frustrated as a wallflower at the
No one would have predicted that a little more than seven years later, the
same guy who was snubbed by the press corps would be on the verge of becoming
the Democratic Party's nominee for president of the United States. Though no
votes have yet been cast, right now it appears that the only candidate who can
stop the Dean juggernaut is Dean himself.
That's because the candidate's offhand remarks now get the sort of attention
he once craved. Dean's candidacy has famously been built on the effective use
of the Internet, but that same medium can also be used against him, as his
campaign recently found out.
The cause of their concern is a mass e-mail that cites two recent Dean
quotes, and concludes that no one who "has any love for America and Israel" could
vote for Dean since he has "promised" not to support the Jewish state.
The comments were Dean's assertion that "the United States needs an
evenhanded approach in the [Arab-Israeli] conflict," and another where he referred to
members of Hamas as "soldiers" in a war against Israel.
The mass distribution of the e-mail was enough to send Dean's campaign into
action to counter it and, curiously, even got a response from the
Anti-Defamation League and various Jewish Community Relations Councils around the country,
agencies that don't normally leap to the defense of political candidates.
The e-mail was roundly denounced as an "urban legend." Dean himself claimed
that it must have been the work of Karl Rove, President Bush's political
Why all the fuss about an e-mail?
Most of it is driven by the fear shared by many in the Democratic Party that
Bush is heading for a far larger share of the Jewish vote next November that
any Republican has received since Ronald Reagan back in 1980. The Democrats
will need one of their key core constituencies to stay loyal if they are to have
a chance to unseat the incumbent.
But was the e-mail merely partisan propaganda?
The answer is mixed. Dean does now say many of the right things about the
enduring nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship, Palestinian terrorism and
Israel's right to defend itself. And, for the sake of argument, let's assume that
Dean's use of the term "evenhanded" was as innocent as he now claims it to be.
But even if we stick with Dean's official policy statements on Israel, some
serious questions remain.
CLINTON AS A ROLE MODEL
Dean claims that on the Israel issue, he will model his presidency on that of
Bill Clinton, and thinks Bush has erred at times by allowing the parties to
negotiate without U.S. involvement. That would mean a Dean presidency might
repeat many of the same mistakes that helped bring about the latest Palestinian
terror war and left Israel stranded.
Would Dean, as Clinton did, invite Yasser Arafat to the White House more
times than any other foreign leader? Others might ask why he thinks it's so
important to use the power of the presidency to create a Palestinian state when he
was so reluctant to use U.S. power against Saddam Hussein?
Why did he name as one of his foreign-policy advisers Clyde Prestowitz, an
author who advocates ending all U.S. aid to Israel to pressure it to make
And, most importantly, how will a candidate whose base of support is on the
left-wing of the political spectrum where hostility to Israel is now
commonplace deal with the anti-Israel sentiments expressed by many of his supporters?
The truth is that there are a lot reasons, other than a few stray remarks, to
question the direction a Dean presidency might take on the Middle East. And
voters who care about Israel Jews and non-Jews alike have the
responsibility to try and make him answer these questions.
That's not to say that Bush should have a free ride from Jewish voters. Far
from it, since Bush has himself, with his road map peace plan, repeated many of
the mistakes Clinton made, mistakes he promised not to imitate.
But whether or not you think he has a realistic shot at defeating Bush next
November and I doubt that he does the focus now must be on pinning down Dean. As he moves toward the nomination, it's time to stop relying on e-mails
and spin, and think seriously about what a President Dean might do.