Fierce opposition to war may doom Dean

AFTER INITIALLY being shrugged off by the Democratic establishment as a non-factor, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is now widely considered the leading contender for his party's nomination.

Seizing on liberal frustration with President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq and categorical inattention to domestic issues, Dr. Dean has energized a core group of grass-roots supporters who are committed to spreading his message. It is a message many Americans want to embrace. It is a message that gives people hope that health care, education and the economy might finally get deserved attention, rather than just the occasional photo op.


But I worry.

I worry it is a message that will not translate into a Democratic victory in November.


Dr. Dean's unequivocal opposition to American military intervention in Iraq has been a key factor distinguishing him from the rest of the serious Democratic challengers. But ironically, his ticket to the top of the Democratic field could also be his ticket out of the presidential race.

As early as June, Dr. Dean recognized that "some in the Democratic Party claim that a candidate who questioned the war cannot lead the party in the great national debate that lies ahead. ... I do not accept that a candidate's national security credentials should be considered suspect for opposing the war in Iraq."

Dr. Dean, regardless of whether you accept it, it is an unavoidable political reality.

In 1992, it was, "The economy, stupid." Today, with the wounds of 9/11 still healing, near-daily terrorist bombings overseas and an elevated threat level here at home, the political tide has shifted. Now it's, "National security, stupid." Americans feel they need a strong leader, someone they believe can protect them from harm in this uncertain international climate.

In politics, for better or worse, perception too often is reality.

For example, while there is virtually no evidence linking Saddam Hussein with the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Bush administration efforts to imply a dotted line between the two have apparently convinced nearly half of the American electorate. The prevailing perception - however inaccurate - that Dr. Dean would be less-than-tough on terror and national security issues could alienate him from critical swing voters - moderates who care deeply about a safe America and a world rid of terrorists. Thus, however much Dr. Dean qualifies his anti-war platform with nuance and tough talk, his unconditional opposition to the war could very well cost him the general election.

The perception of Dr. Dean as stubbornly anti-war is not helped, either, by the incontrovertible facts at hand. For 12 years, Mr. Hussein and the Iraqi regime thumbed their collective noses at the international community. The United Nations could hardly pass resolutions fast enough for Mr. Hussein to violate them.

No one would deny that Mr. Hussein brutally murdered thousands of Kurds and tortured political dissenters while pursuing development of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration and more than 100 congressional Democrats believed the Iraqi regime represented a threat that, for the sake of world peace and regional stability, needed to be eliminated.


So Dr. Dean's assertion that we had no rationale for intervention strikes me as either political opportunism or naivetM-i. Either possibility is troubling.

If in the run-up to the 2004 election we experience an attack on American soil, regardless of whether it is on a 9/11 order of magnitude, I worry. I worry for what that would do to the still-healing psyche of our nation. I worry about our morale as a country, about our faith that the future will be safe for our children.

And as a Democrat who is hungry for change in presidential leadership, I worry about Dr. Dean accepting the Democratic nomination in Boston. I worry that many voters, preoccupied with the perceived ability of our commander in chief to manage American security interests in an unpredictable international environment, will side with the tested leadership of George W. Bush.

This voter included.

Daniel Munoz is an M.D. candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a graduate student at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Columnist Jules Witcover is on vacation.