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Dean's chance to be a hero

LET US NOW praise Howard Dean -- and ask him to go gracefully.

Dean performed a real service to his party and to his country. He got into the race early -- and bravely -- when President Bush, waving the bloody shirt of 9/11, was deemed unbeatable.

Dean demonstrated that there was a real hunger -- and not just among the young -- for a candidate who would speak truth to power. In a sense, he made it safe for the rest of the Democratic field to be a lot tougher on Bush and his rogue foreign policy. If Bush today seems an incumbent with a glass jaw, history should give Howard Dean a lot of credit.

Dean also invented a new way of doing politics and raising money via the Internet. Despite the faltering of Dean's candidacy, every other candidate is now imitating the e-fund-raising that Dean pioneered, which still has the potential of allowing small money to level the playing field against big money.

And Dean demonstrated anew the small-d democratic potential of electoral politics. He is fond of saying that his campaign is "about you" -- the legions of eager volunteers less attracted by Dean personally than by his promise of democratic engagement and political change.

Dean gave a new generation of young people hope in their country's institutions. (Young people keep looking for leaders who reflect their own idealism, and their hopes keep getting dashed -- from Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy in 1968 to the pre-Monica, pre-triangulation Bill Clinton in 1992 to Howard Dean. But new generations of the naturally idealistic young keep being born. Dean was the hero of this one.)

Having given Dean his fair measure of praise, let us now turn to the awkward task of politely burying the cadaver of his candidacy.

If Dean succeeded in blowing open the race, he also failed in several key respects that cannot fairly be blamed on anyone but himself.

For starters, one always had the sense of an odd marriage -- the right movement yoked to the wrong guy. This was a progressive, grass-roots army in love with a rather tightly wound centrist candidate. As the governor of Vermont, after all, Dean had been a fiscal conservative to a fault. And despite his rebirth as a populist in the campaign, neither his policies nor his temperament suggested a man of the people. Vermont's progressives, whose hero is their independent congressman, Bernie Sanders, never regarded Dean as one their own.

Second, the entire machinery of meet-ups and viral enlistment of activists was the raw material of a new-style campaign but something short of a campaign. As events proved, it was not the same thing as a coherent strategy.

Dean lost badly in Iowa not just because he went too negative on the other candidates or because he sounded too shrill but because his organization was as viral (and ephemeral) as his Internet auxiliary. One recalls the old tongue-in-cheek line, "We anarchists have to get organized." Dean didn't.

Third, it has been said over and over, correctly, that anger takes you only so far. Dean never managed to behave as the front-runner that he briefly was. Harvesting some improbable endorsements, such as Al Gore's, was no substitute for reaching out to the rest of the party. As recently as this week, Dean was still bashing Washington insiders -- democratically elected officials who have been fighting the good fight to constrain the extremists in the executive branch.

After New Hampshire, I telephoned a friend who was one of Dean's early stalwarts to offer my condolences. He brushed them off. "Dean did it to himself," he said.

And that is a mercy. For if Dean had been sandbagged by the Democratic Party establishment, you would have had thousands of the most energetic of Democratic foot soldiers going away angry -- and with justification. But Steve Grossman's exodus speaks for the entire Dean campaign. There are simply no Dean bitter-enders unless the candidate himself chooses that role.

Which brings me to the final point. Dean, justly a hero for blowing the Democratic campaign wide open and for showing new ways to energize our democracy, has one remaining task. He needs to show some class in the days to come and to remember why he and so many of his supporters got into this race.

To a remarkable degree, Democrats since the Iowa caucuses have managed to avoid their usual circular firing squad. Nothing would be better for his party and for Howard Dean's own remarkable legacy than for Dean himself to now play an unaccustomed role: that of

a unifier.

Robert Kuttner's is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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