HOWARD DEAN attacked Bill Clinton without meaning to last week because his thinking about domestic policy is muddled on the occasions when it isn't simply inadequate.
That is because there is often more pure politics in Howard Dean than the leader of a grass-roots movement is prepared to acknowledge. Occasionally, it slips out under the general heading of candor -- the initial explanation for all those secret records in Vermont (tongue allegedly in cheek) was to deny ammunition to the opposition; the explanation for his flip-flop in now opposing the transportation of nuclear waste to Nevada is that he is running for president.
Most of the time, the political strategy that shines through, also acknowledged by the good doctor on occasion, is that angry Americans who detest President Bush make up the core of his especially partisan Democratic constituency and that he is intends to add other elements of the party's base to his coalition before reaching out to a broader audience.
In his most important attempt to outline his approach to domestic affairs -- in New Hampshire last week -- Dean said that what he has learned about America over the past year of campaigning is that people are angry, despairing, and disconnected from the country's large public and private institutions.
This is a virtual mirror image of the politics that drives President Bush's political operation from a different ideological mooring.
This kind of politics requires enemies against whom to mobilize. For a year, Dean's campaign has made it very clear that the enemies are not just conservatives. They also permeate the Democratic Party, and they must be crushed as permanently as the right-wingers. He tells his followers that they have the power not only to "take back" the country but to take back the party as well.
From whom? Well, for starters there are the "Washington Democrats," also known as the "Washington politics as usual club."
Where Iraq is concerned, this aspect of Dean's war is familiar. Rather than explain why he was willing to accept Saddam Hussein's regime as the price for not invading Iraq last winter, Dean attacks all his major opponents for being Bush toadies. He also uses a straw man by asserting that "the capture of one very bad man does not mean this president and the Washington Democrats can declare victory in the war on terror."
No one is, of course, but it helps Dean avoid talking about the real issue.
In domestic affairs, enemies are also required. I am convinced that he did not intend to strike out at Bill Clinton; the ex-Clintonites who are supporting Dean are people who dealt with him when he was governor and worked on last week's oration, and they are persuasive in arguing he was not specifically attacking the former president or his record.
What is so fascinating, however, is that this need for enemies -- for a domestic equivalent of people playing footsy with Bush on Iraq -- overrode mature judgment. Dean's words make sense only as an attack. Noting the Clinton phrase from the 1996 State of the Union address ("The era of big government is over"), Dean promised a "new era" -- "not one where we join Republicans and aim simply to limit the damage they inflict on working families."
Dean's rhetoric imagines a domestic party enemy that doesn't and didn't exist. In his damage control frenzy, moreover, he made it clear he wouldn't dare even try to make such an argument explicitly.
Oddly, what he did do, in a formulation based a new social contract, is reveal huge gaps in his thinking and one difference with his opponents on taxes that he can only deal with (like Saddam Hussein) through the use of a straw man.
The third of four components in Dean's new social contract is retirement security. Saving is so important that he has announced his intention to propose something to encourage saving soon.
There's a catchy promise. It was made months ago -- most prominently by Senator John Edwards -- by Dean's evil opponents.
On taxes, Dean has come up with a new way of avoiding the fact that in proposing the repeal of all tax cuts enacted since 2001, he would raise the income taxes of the same working families he allegedly champions.
He calls it the "Bush tax." All Democrats agree that ordinary Americans didn't get much from Bush's tax cuts and that the money they did get was effectively confiscated by higher local property taxes, service cuts by state and federal governments, and higher health insurance premiums.
Dean, however, uses his criticism of the "Bush tax" to hide the fact that its complete repeal would take away its low 10 percent income tax rate as well as its increases in the child tax credit, which would raise ordinary Americans' taxes. What sense does it make to argue that because they didn't get much on '01 and '03 that they should now face higher taxes?
No matter, he has anger and despair to work with, as well as all those enemies in the party. If Dean is indeed headed toward the Democratic nomination, he might want to channel some of that anger toward a less punitive approach to the very people he seeks to represent. His position on Iraq is enough of an albatross.
Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.