Dean Risks Driving a Wedge Through Democratic Party

Posted October 27, 2003 at 4:29pm

Wedge politics has always been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, employing the tactic can unite a large enough base of people for a given candidate or party to succeed politically, especially in the short term.

On the other hand, the groups wedged out of the equation can become an equally united base of opposition to the politician or political party that chose to freeze them out, gathering sufficient strength to eventually counter the initial political success.

Anybody thinking about using the wedge approach must be sure that the size and strength of “us” is sufficient to counter the size and strength of “them.” Even more fundamentally, once a politician has decided to drive the wedge he better at least be sure he will not ever be in a position where he comes to desperately need the support of “them.”

In Vermont, it would appear, these lessons have not been taught. Former Gov. Howard Dean seems intent on driving a wedge right into the middle of the Democratic Party. While this may or may not serve his short-term personal goal of winning the Democratic nomination, it is likely to prove fatal to the broader and far more important goal that all Democrats have of defeating President Bush in 2004.

Dean has become increasingly vitriolic in his attacks on fellow Democrats in recent weeks, expanding upon a theme that has been central to his campaign for at least the past year. His attacks have always differed from the normal give and take between candidates vying for their party’s nomination in that he does not merely criticize his specific opponents for the prize. He vilifies any Democrat who supported the Iraq war resolution, any portion of the president’s tax cuts or the No Child Left Behind legislation, claiming these Democrats are worthy of nothing but the utmost contempt. He derides these people as “Bush lite,” being no different from Republicans, having “rolled over” and offered no resistance to the Bush agenda. He calls them cockroaches that will scurry away from the bright light he, our conquering hero, will shine upon them once he ascends to the White House. [IMGCAP(1)]

In taking this approach, Dean has melded wedge politics with shameless opportunism since the record makes it clear that he has a mixed opinion on whether it is OK for Democrats to side with Republicans on some issues. In the mid-1990s, he openly agreed with the Republican approach to cutting Medicare and balancing the budget. But then, searching for a hook in his once long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination, the governor recast himself as the one true champion of Democratic politics willing to stand up to the Bush agenda and arrogantly dismissed all of his opponents, and a good many other Democrats as well, as rolling over for the Republicans. In doing so, he clearly tapped into a vein of the Democratic Party that agrees with his stated disgust for Democrats on the other side of issues like the Iraq war, but at what cost?

There exists a universe of people who want to replace President Bush in 2004, a group that is arguably growing and clearly not insignificant in size at the moment, but a good chunk of this universe consists of people on the other side of the wedge issues the governor has seized upon. It makes no sense to insult and toss out of the Democratic Party a group of people, whatever their positions on these issues may have been, who currently oppose President Bush. It also smacks of arrogant demagoguery for Dean, a man who was hanging out in Vermont when a good many of these Democrats he likes to mock were fighting hard to stop former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (Ga.) Republican Revolution and to oppose the policies of George W. Bush, to stand up and claim that he is the only true Democrat running for president and the only person on the planet with the courage to take on President Bush.

Dean seems oblivious to the reality that he will eventually need the support of this particular group of “thems” that he has chosen to drive a wedge into, and a person can be called a cockroach only so many times by a politician before that person decides that maybe it isn’t in his best interest to do anything at all to help that politician — ever.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has endorsed Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) to be the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee.