Richard Reeves

Why I Am Against Howard Dean and John Edwards, Too

WASHINGTON -- Hooray for Howard Dean, I say. The former governor of Vermont, which I didn't know needed all that governing, is the new hottie in the crowded field of Democrats panting after the party's 2004 nomination for president. He made his media mark last week when it was reported that he raised more money than all his opponents between April and June -- collecting $10.1 million from 59,000 donors, many of whom he found with the help of the Internet.

So, at least for now, he has replaced John Edwards, who got hot when he raised the most money in the first quarter of this year, a great deal of it from fellow trial lawyers.

Leaving aside the sad fact that begging skills are so central to the process of becoming president, there is something to be said for ambitious and attractive unknowns getting the chance to tell their stories. I have never met Governor Dean, but I agree with him on many issues and like the idea of someone willing to admit he is a liberal these days. Senator Edwards, from North Carolina, has something to say, too: The Democratic candidate has to have some appeal in Southern states to win back the White House.

But I am against both these fine men. They are both unwitting examples of what went wrong with the Democratic Party and American liberalism in general. I don't think either of them is experienced enough or capable enough to effectively govern the vast enterprise that is the United States of America.

Here, in the style of a very short history of everything, is why I believe President Dean or President Edwards would be a disaster for party and country. I could actually tell that history in five words: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

My old-fashioned thinking on this goes back to the 1970s. After the United States' humiliation in Vietnam, after Watergate and the disgracing of President Richard Nixon, Democrats (and the press, too) thrived by telling Americans what was wrong with their country and its history. That worked so well that an unknown former Democratic governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, was able to make simple truth-telling into a national wedge issue. "I'll never lie to you" became a winning slogan, apparently because many Americans thought that most everyone else was lying.

Carter, it turned out, was in over his head. He was a detail man, indecisive as he pondered more and more numbers and options, going over and around his own staff, almost all of them Georgians of limited national experience. Sometimes it seemed he didn't trust Americans either, telling them that double-digit inflation and interest rates were really their own fault. He seemed so unsure of himself that the Soviet Union decided that it could get away with invading Afghanistan, and Iran brazenly grabbed and held more than 100 American hostages.

Along came Ronald Reagan, saying that the United States of America was God's greatest creation -- "a shining city on a hill" -- and Americans were God's gift to the world. It was morning in America; we had nothing to be ashamed of and millions of reasons to be proud. Despite or because of his background as a movie actor (and governor of a state larger than most countries), he was an effective and decisive leader, a man of few ideas deeply held who rallied his people around the flag. The day-to-day duties of governance concerned him not a bit, and were turned over to efficient and loyal cadres trained under Nixon.

The first George Bush failed as president, but he came and went quickly, losing the job to a politically talented young governor, this one from Arkansas. The country prospered under President Bill Clinton, but there is an oddity about presidents and the economy: If times are good they get re-elected but get little credit; if times are bad they get the blame and lose the job. Besides, Clinton was too smart by half, which can be a euphemism for indecision. In the end, what will his administration be remembered for?

End of history. The Democrats are no longer seen as a party ready to govern. Whatever one thinks of the very decisive George W. Bush's personal capabilities, he has inherited impressive Republican governance, beginning with the kids of the Nixon administration, Vice President Richard Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld among them. They know what they're doing, even if what they are doing may turn out to be spectacularly wrongheaded.

The moral of the story: Winning is not enough. The Democrats cannot afford another failure of governance. Is Dean or Edwards ready to govern? I don't think so. Democrats have to take a long look at folks who have been around a while. Perhaps Richard Gephardt. Perhaps John Kerry. The Democrats need someone ready to end their 30-year cycle of political start-ups.

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600

More like Richard Reeves