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Democrats in debt to Howard Dean

By now, the average American must have seen the Howard Dean "concession" rant after his third-place finish in Iowa a couple of dozen times. For some, that bizarre performance is all they know _ or feel they ever need to know _ about the former Vermont governor and his campaign for the presidency. That is a shame, because the Dean candidacy has already profoundly changed American politics for the better.

Howard Dean has already altered the national political debate of this presidential year. More important, Dean has redeemed his party from the debilitating squalor of its narcotic dependence on soft money by showing the nation a better and cleaner way to finance elections.

Democrats who are understandably proud of the economic record and fiscal stewardship of President Bill Clinton do not like to be reminded that Clinton assiduously courted, consorted with and made Democrats more reliant upon large corporate donors whose overriding interest was White House access. Howard Dean showed America how you could finance a national campaign without wealthy Rangers or Pioneers or Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers. For this alone, the nation is in his debt.

Alan Ginsburg, a historian in Maine, recalls how maverick presidential candidate Ross Perot in 1992 single-handedly changed the nation's public agenda. In the first two centuries of American independence _ through nine wars and the Great Depression _ the country had accumulated a national debt of $1-trillion. Then, Perot pointed out, in just 12 years from 1980 to 1992, with no wars and no depressions, our national debt exploded to $4-trillion.

In the campaign of 1992, neither major party wanted to talk about the debt: Republicans, because its quadrupling had occurred when they controlled the White House, and Democrats, because they were eager to get back into office and get the keys to the federal treasury. Ross Perot dared to remind voters that we had given ourselves a 12-year binge of tax-cuts and spending and were about to pass the bill, shamefully, on to our children.

The fact that the administration of Bill Clinton, for the next eight years, dealt seriously with deficits, even daring to raise taxes in successful pursuit of a balanced federal budget, is a tribute to the campaign of Ross Perot.

His opponents for the Democratic nomination are indebted to Howard Dean for making them better and sharper candidates. Dr. Dean nearly performed a vertebrae transplant on his rivals, with challenges like, "Most importantly, I want my party to stand up for what we believe in again," and, "The deal I'm going to make you is this: If you make me the Democratic nominee, I'll make you proud to be Democrats again," and, "If you're going to defend the president's tax cuts and if you're going to defend the president's war, I frankly don't think we can beat George Bush by being Bush Lite."

For millions of Democrats dispirited by their party's fear in the 2002 campaign at being branded by Bush as "soft on terrorism," Howard Dean gave them hope that they were not alone.

It was Dean, according to my notes, who condemned "companies (that) are leaving the country to avoid paying taxes or to avoid paying people livable wages. And corporations are doing this with the support of the government and a political process in Washington they rent _ if not own." Sound familiar?

And after terminal constituency-coddling from countless Democratic candidates, it was refreshing, at last, to hear a leader challenge people to make an "America where it's not enough for me to want health care for my family but the obligation of every one of us as American citizens to ensure that each one of us has health care for our families."

It's not just "Are you better off than you were four years ago," but instead, "Are we better off _ are the strong more just and the weak more secure _ than we were four years ago?"

Nobody made Howard Dean, after doubts had been raised about his presidential temperament, stand up in a Des Moines hotel ballroom and act, in the acerbic assessment of former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, like "a prairie dog on speed," but his campaign must not be confused with that one episode. Howard Dean's contribution to his nation, his party, and American politics, is both profound and important.

Mark Shields is a syndicated columnist and an analyst for NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Mark Shields