The front page of today’s Washington Post has a none-too-flattering analysis of Gov. Howard Dean, the man most likely to challenge GW Bush for the White House in 2004. It starts:
“Former Vermont governor Howard Dean stands on the brink of a remarkable achievement in American politics, having transformed himself from rank obscurity to clear favorite for his party’s presidential nomination. But rarely has a front-runner begun an election year with as many questions swirling around him as the man who rewrote the rules in presidential politics the past 12 months.”
Coming from someone whose profession is supposed to be reporting on American politics, the second sentence is rankest stupidity.
For confirmation, look no further than the challenger from the party out of power four years ago. No primaries had been held, but GW Bush was a front-runner who had rewritten the rules of presidential politics, and he had an enormous number of questions swirling about him. And they were far more serious than those swirling around Gov. Dean right now: Bush was an admitted alcoholic until the time he turned 40; he was governor of Texas, a post the quirks of history left with far less political power than the state’s Lieutenant governor; he had a poor record of convincing people to do his bidding; most of his career involved questionable business deals that traded on his name. None of that, of course, kept him from the White House.
Anyway, two points for Europeans looking at the American election: key people in the press (and Balz is one of the most important paper’s most important reporters) have very short memories and are apt to say very stupid things.
Second, tagging Dean as someone who rewrote the rules is actually an astute observazion, maybe even the most important one he could possibly make. Because rewriting the rules is precisely what GW Bush did in 2000, what Bill Clinton did in 1992, what GHW Bush did in 1988, what Ronald Reagan did in 1980, and what Jimmy Carter did in 1976, which is about as far back as my political memory reaches. If Dean really is rewriting the rules, then he is exercising the single most important presidential skill: dominating the national agenda. And if he can keep doing it — which will involve continuing to do all of the little things right that his campaign has done so far, while offering a vision for the future — the chances are good that he will be moving to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue come January of 2005.