Dems' Dire Dean Dilemma

The thought of antiwar candidate Howard Dean becoming the Democrats’ presidential nominee continues to worry party leaders.

Democratic honchos, for the most part, have been expressing their fears about Dean’s weaknesses on national security issues privately. But lately they’re going public, questioning Dean’s pacifist agenda and his opposition to the war in Iraq.

One emerging Dean critic is former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, who recently spoke with me about the upcoming election. What he said is big news that has added significance because he talks frequently with former President Clinton, and much of what he had to say, according to other Democrats, reflects Clinton’s views.

In a nutshell, Panetta says there is growing anxiety that Dean’s fierce opposition to the war in Iraq — despite strong public belief (based on polls) that going into Iraq was the right policy — will make their party look weak on national security and the war on terrorism in next year’s election.

“There clearly are concerns about Dean’s ability to appeal to the entire country, particularly on national security issues,” Panetta says. “There is concern about how does this (Dean’s antiwar campaign) play out a year from now? How can you compete with President Bush on the national security front? There is some concern about whether Dean can rise to the occasion on this issue.

“This country wants to know that whoever is elected president understands the importance of protecting our national security,” he adds. “While there may be one path to winning the nomination, it’s a very different path to winning the presidency.”

Translation: You can run and win the Democratic nomination, just as South Dakota Sen. George McGovern did in his insurgent presidential campaign against the Vietnam War. But Dean is not going to win back the White House by running as the “peace candidate” in an age where terrorism challenges U.S. security as never before.

Panetta’s words echo similar fears among Democratic activists elsewhere in the country, especially in the South and the West. However, it’s not just Dean’s far-left agenda on Iraq that many centrist-leaning Democrats fear, but also his ultra-liberal views on strict new government regulations on businesses, free trade and favoring civil unions for same sex marriages.

Dean has pushed himself into frontrunner position in the Democratic primaries by appealing to the party’s large antiwar activist base. Yet the party’s liberal wing represents no more than one-third of all self-identified Democratic voters. If he becomes the nominee, he faces a landslide defeat if he cannot reach out to moderates and conservatives who now shun his candidacy.

Recent election match-up polls against Bush among the Democratic field of candidates shows that Dean polls near the bottom of the list.

He now seems to be recognizing his weakness on national security. Last week he was attacking the president on defense issues in Merrimack, N.H., charging that Bush has “no understanding of defense” and that he “has made us weaker.”

“He doesn’t understand that you better keep troop morale high rather than just flying over for Thanksgiving,” a charge that was clearly out of step in his party. Every other Democratic rival praised Bush’s trip to Baghdad, as did U.S. troops there. Public support for the visit was off the charts.

He also said that Bush’s “bullheadedness” was to blame for the war in Iraq, and that the president was “incapable” of winning broad international support from our allies, meaning France and Germany.

How would Dean win them over? He doesn’t say.

As for the war, blaming the president for it, instead of mass-murderer Saddam Hussein and the Al Qaeda terrorists who want to put him back into power, appeals only to the “blame America first” crowd in the peace movement, not to mainstream voters.

On other defense issues, Dean charged that “the president is about to let North Korea become a nuclear power,” even though Communist dictator Kim Jong Il began developing such weapons in the Clinton years. In fact, this is an area of diplomacy where Bush has had a lot of success, persuading North Korea this year to enter into multilateral talks with the U.S., Japan, China and South Korea on ending its nuclear program.

Can the former Vermont governor — who has politically embraced the antiwar protest movement’s agenda and would have left Hussein’s regime in power — persuade a majority of Americans that he can better protect U.S. national security? It seems doubtful at best.

Leon Panetta’s growing concern “about whether Dean can rise to the occasion on this issue” sends a chilling message to his party — one that Democrats had better heed before it’s too late.