MAXWELL:   Support flows to the guy with a backbone

1/7/2004 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

For the nine Democrats trying to kick George W. Bush out of the White House, the first real test of their presidential timber _ Iowa _ is fast approaching. But as the caucuses draw near, the Democrats are doing what they do best: cannibalizing one another, especially the front-runner.

And why do they cannibalize one another? Because individually, with rare exceptions, most of those with serious campaigns have been spooked by Bush and are not strongly supporting Democratic issues and programs.

Currently, Howard Dean is the one Democrat _ with a realistic chance of unseating Bush _ who clearly stands for something and is unafraid of Bush. For his courage and efforts, Dean is garnering the endorsements of some other leading Democratic leaders, including former Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley. Of course, Gore and Bradley are not officially running for office.

Democrats were beaten during the last mid-term elections in part because they did not stand for anything and because they did not stand up to Bush. They ran like scalded dogs from the party label, and they went into hiding when confronted with the dreaded “L” word, liberalism.

I am reminded of the advice that South Carolinian Preston Callison offered to Democrats nearly 40 years ago. While running for Congress, Callison warned that if a Democrat wanted to win in South Carolina and the rest of Dixie: “Don’t act like one.” Democrats took those words to heart and ran from their legacy.

Today’s Democrats are doing the same thing. Look at Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. Why does he remain in the party? Although he is the most Bush-lite of the candidates, most of the others are attacking Dean so fiercely that they sound like Republicans in training. Dean is the only candidate who publicly opposed the Iraq war in the beginning and who still has the courage of his conviction. American citizens are not safer because Saddam Hussein has been captured, and Dean never hesitates to say so. Lieberman has come close to calling Dean a traitor because he dares to be a Democrat.

Few of the other candidates mention the great programs and issues the party traditionally stands for. I am talking about programs that saved families from starvation; that gave old people comfort in their golden years; that gave us the GI Bill of Rights; that helped clear some our major waterways and clean our air; that gave youngsters a head start in school. Most of the Democratic candidates do not mention these programs or voice the humanitarian spirit of these programs because Bush has intimidated them. Dean, on the hand, even when he stands slightly on the wrong side of an issue, has the courage to speak his mind.

Instead of waiting for the courts to act, all Democratic candidates should be telling Bush, along with the American people, that they do not want to ease emissions standards by letting industry establish guidelines. They should be letting Bush know that they oppose the recreational use of snowmobiles in our precious forests. Democrats should be resisting with all their might the president’s assault on free speech and its attendant rights and privileges.

In announcing his endorsement on Tuesday, Bradley called Dean’s campaign “one of the best things to happen to American democracy in decades. . . . His campaign offers America new hope. His supporters are breathing fresh air into the lungs of our democracy. They’re revitalizing politics, showing a way to escape the grip of big money and to confront the shame of forgetting those in need. . . . The Dean candidacy engages active participation, not from those who want special favors later, but from those who dream of building a better world now.”

Because he is standing up on principle, Dean has gone from being the little-known underdog from a tiny New England state to the front-runner in a crowded field of incumbents, some with personal fortunes.

Indeed, ordinary citizens who can donate only a few dollars are doing so on the Internet and at house parties. While Dean appeals to blue-collar Democrats, he also appeals to upper middle-class professionals and the highly educated. And gradually but surely, Dean is attracting African-Americans, a core Democratic constituency, in large numbers. Even tough-minded members of the Congressional Black Caucus are being won over.

Meanwhile, because they do not stand for anything or stand up for anything, the other Democrats are trying to bring down the one person who does. If they had the courage of their convictions _ a little backbone and loyalty _ they would have no need to trash their best chance to win back the White House.