Underground passage

Thursday, January 1st, 2004

“Dean defends bin Laden,” the headline ran.

Sweet heresy! Could it be we’re witnessing a presidential race with candidates strong enough to buck the know-nothing riptide in American politics?

Here’s how the front-running Democrat “defended” Public Enemy No. 1 the other day: Asked by a reporter for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor whether bin Laden should be put to death if caught, Howard Dean said, “I’ve resisted pronouncing a sentence before guilt is found. I still have this old-fashioned notion that even with people like Osama, who is very likely to be found guilty, we should do our best not to … prejudge jury trials.”

This is American justice 101, a principle so basic to the nation’s constitutional underpinnings, you’d think only sheltered troglodytes would gasp at such words — yet, in the dumbed-down context of presidential politics, any principle-driven opinion can quickly morph into pointy-headedness and radicalism.

Democrats know this and have long been at pains to project a lowest-common-denominator persona, usually to their detriment (think Michael Dukakis in a tank, Al Gore in earth tones).

Devoid of principle, presidential elections wind up being about image — that is to say, nothing — and I know I’m not the only one who has gone apoplectic with quadrennial despair over this state of affairs. What should be a referendum on war and peace and the great issues of the day becomes, instead, an exercise in nuanced tweaking of television sound bites. Nothing quite beats the agony of watching an election chug along without you.

But here was Howard Dean, refusing to hedge his bets when a reporter asked him how he, as prez, would handle Osama — refusing to project ersatz toughness or pander to the irrational patriotism (translation: group fear) “most Americans” harbor.

The bugbear is “most Americans” — the silent, seething, road-rage majority at the imaginary center of electoral politics. The Republicans own this crowd, but too many of today’s Democrats think they can’t win without ’em and campaign in a constant state of apology to them, rather than daring to inspire their natural constituency and, in the process, mold a new majority, a la FDR.

Dean, a moderate, is more shrewd pol than visionary idealist, but man, you’ve got to start somewhere. What’s at stake is the kind of nation we’re becoming, and getting there requires leadership, not image adjustment. It requires people who will stand their ground and risk setting off the conservative media (such as NewsMax.com, where the above headline appeared), and who know the country has not “drifted right” except by default.

Conservative columnist Joseph Farah of WorldNetDaily, in a piece called “Herod Dean,” shows plainly where the line in the sand is drawn.

For the forces now lining up against Dean (as well as an unknown but sizable number of Americans), fealty to revealed truth is paramount. Farah, for instance, moves from Dean’s “soft on Osama” stand to his take on Jesus.

“Christ,” he quotes the candidate as saying, “was someone who sought out people who were disenfranchised, people who were left behind. He fought against self-righteousness of people who had everything. He was a person who set an extraordinary example that has lasted 2,000 years.”

Well, yeah, says the columnist, “But Jesus Christ did much more than set an example. He came to earth as the Son of God and shed His blood to save mankind. Believing that is what makes one a ‘committed believer in Jesus Christ.’ Anything short of that represents only the lowest form of political pandering.”

Whoa, fella. I have no interest in arguing religion with anyone, but I can’t help but be struck by how the columnist’s ire is roused, in both cases, by the fact that Dean is not in lockstep with the sort of Word that exists beyond proof. Good is good; evil is evil. You can’t discuss it. You can only believe.

Thank God for a presidential candidate who wants to stop the hijacking of our government through this underground passageway between church and state.