C-Span is without question one of America’s great achievements. It is of particular value to folks with extraordinary amounts of idle time on their hands. The aftermath of rotator cuff surgery is not all that unpleasant by surgical standards, but there is a premium on keeping still. The good arm can work the remote control, but as the night rolls on, the offerings grow less attractive. Thus I found myself watching the speeches of Howard Dean, Richard Gephardt and John Kerry to the assembled Democrats of Linn County, Iowa, this past weekend. I also caught Dr. Dean addressing an Atlantic Monthly gathering at the National Press Club, and most of the proceedings of the American Association of Political Consultants.

The conclusion I draw from this forced march through a score of hours of commentary, long form, is that the political elites of the country have still not absorbed the key lesson that 9-11 changed everything, and that the useful wisdom of the past 50 years of American elections, while interesting, has as much relevance to 2004 as England’s Reform Act crisis of the 1830s. The reality that Americans can die in great numbers with no notice drove the elections of 2002. That reality will also drive the elections of 2004.

The three Democratic presidential candidates paid little attention to this new reality, as did most of the pundits on stage at the AAPC. It is an inconvenient reality as it undermines the hard-won expertise of the consultants – everyone is starting over – and it cripples the rhetoric of the candidates who had been banking on significant numbers of voters caring about Kyoto and other liberal-friendly issues. The Clinton-Carter legacy on national security is so dismal that these candidates will be hard-pressed to get even a respectful hearing from the center-left, much less the center or center-right.

But these three did not even choose to try, which is why the Iowa speeches were so depressing. Dick Gephardt is simply used up, a washed-out antique from another era, an aging veteran back for one more season playing to the respectful applause of older fans who remember different times. John Kerry is just plain grim – the least appealing face on a presidential candidate since Alan Cranston – and his compulsive lip-wetting and nose-touching were bizarre accompaniments to gloomy talk incongruously mixed with self-serving JFK references.

Dr. Dean alone was interesting. He bashed his colleagues in the race present and absent for supporting the president’s resolution on Iraq. He wants taxes raised across the board, at least back to the rate levels of 2000. He seems earnestly to believe that the recession of the early ’90s ended when Clinton raised taxes and that stock values collapsed when the Bush tax cuts were adopted. Dean is also on the far side of left when it comes to the social issues, and his MD-bred “confidence” is both apparent and not likely to wear well with some slices of the electorate. (He should study Majority Leader Frist for lessons on how not to wear learning on the sleeve.)

In a word, Dr. Dean is smug. He thinks himself Moses to the lost tribe of the Democrats, wandering around the desert of their self-imposed exile from peace. Does he deserve to be?

The national press corps likes him, and college kids and their professors will flock to him. He may, in fact, have been Vermont’s answer to the Colossus of Rhodes, but we need to remember that there is a grand total of 613,000 people in Vermont. About 3,000 of them are African-American and about 6,000 are Latinos. In all of 2001, eight people total were murdered in Vermont. It is a cliche to refer to the states as the laboratories of the nation. Vermont is more like the nation’s country club, and Dean has been chair of its Tournament Committee. To listen to him upbraid the president for his foreign policy statements is thus just short of comical, a reaction I think that Edwards will also provoke. Republicans ought to cheer the forbearance which Dems display toward Dr. Dean. To treat non-serious people seriously is to impair credibility. The Dems are in danger of simply becoming irrelevant to American politics because they are incapable to dealing with national security.

Which leaves me thankful for Joe Lieberman, even though my callers refer to him as Joe Woe-is-me-berman because his sing-song style can easily be mistaken for whining. The senator from Connecticut will also get beaten like a bongo by President Bush, but at least those debates will be worth hearing. Lieberman, alone among the Democrats, seems to have some idea of the stakes involved. In most contests, that would be an advantage. Among the Democrats, I’m not so sure.

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.