Avoid the Call of the Mild

The most intriguing passion in play these days is not whether Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ will do miraculously at the box office when it opens on Ash Wednesday (My prophecy: It will). No, the real wild card is what is going to happen to The Passion of the Deaniacs once their leader's campaign closes.

Despite Dean's sensational crash and burn, the grassroots movement that sprang up around him remains intact and still desperate to move toward its stated goal: removing Bush, remaking the Democratic Party and, indeed, remaking America.

"We need to keep building the movement," Joe Trippi, who helped birth it, told me, "so that it's not tied to any one personality. Anger toward George Bush brought this movement together, but its mission is bigger than changing presidents."

More than 1,000 activist groups were spawned by the good doctor, and many of them are still hard at it, organizing, e-mailing, blogging and Meetup-ing, looking to take the energy and enthusiasm the Dean campaign unleashed and turn it into a permanent political force.

The question that should be on the minds of the newly invigorated red meat Democrats is: Will John Kerry be able to attract these grassroots advocates to his campaign, or will they scatter to the wind, never to return (like the John McCain faithful, MIA since the 2000 South Carolina GOP primary)?

Assuming the current campaign trajectory continues, Kerry should have a Brahmin death grip on the Democratic nomination long before the Ides of March is upon us. At which point, he's going to hear an iPod's worth of siren songs all warning him that he needs to rein in his newly fiery populist rhetoric for fear of scaring off Wall Street or soccer moms or NASCAR dads or those elusive DLC Dems.

But the real kiss of death would be to heed this call of the mild.

Instead of dusting off the Democratic Party's tried-and-untrue swing-voter strategy -- remember 2002? -- Kerry needs to become the pied piper of the discontented, the disillusioned, the disenfranchised and the millions who have stopped believing that politics is the way to make a difference in the world.

Dean's message of empowerment brought these disconnected denizens out of the shadows, and his Internet-based campaign connected them to each other -- filling them with promise and hope. A promise that is now in danger of turning into disheartenment and disengagement.

I saw this for myself when I gave a speech at Shoreline Community College in Seattle last week. Of the hundreds of students in the audience, I'd estimate two-thirds were wearing a Dean button or T-shirt. After my talk, one young woman came up to me on the verge of tears. "I'd never cared about politics," she told me, "until Howard Dean came along. And since then I've been working around the clock for him. What do I do now?"

These are the people Kerry needs by his side. Unlike wishy-washy swing voters, they'll be able to withstand the $100 million mudslide headed his way. Karl Rove and company will do and say anything -- and I mean anything -- to bury him. And stay in power. I caught a whiff of the latest anti-Kerry slimemobile making its way down the information superhighway this week, courtesy of the Republican National Committee (which, for reasons that escape me, continues to have me on its e-mail list). The subject line said it all: "Sen. John Kerry's Hypocrisy, Vol. I, Issue 5." I shudder to think what volume they'll be on by Election Day 2004.

But the only way Kerry will be able to get the Dean-o-crats on his side is if he can bring to his campaign the kind of grand, bold vision the times demand. Great social movements are not sparked by subtle shifts in policy or new and improved versions of familiar proposals. Nor are they sparked by attacks alone, however brilliant and justified.

"Ronald Reagan," said Peggy Noonan last week in commemorating his 93rd birthday, "was a great communicator not because he said things in a big way but because he said big things. It wasn't the way he said it, it was what he said." As Reagan did, the Democratic nominee has to speak of big things.

But even the Great Communicator's message didn't get through right away -- he lost his run for the White House in 1976. Reagan's base and the base of the conservative movement kept organizing, however, and by 1980 he was president.

Unfortunately, the country cannot afford another four years of George Bush's destructive policies while the movement regroups and grows stronger. Which is why the Democrats cannot afford to squander the passion of the Deaniacs.


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