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Sunday’s Los Angeles Times carried a story by Mark Babarak and Matea Gold that included large chunks of John Kerry’s and Dick Gephardt’s recent and very harsh attacks on Howard Dean. The same day the Washington Post let Dean have it with the toughest pre-primary negative editorial I can remember: “Assessing Mr. Dean.” And Monday’s Post included another round of attacks on Dean from Kerry and Lieberman, in an article by Jonathan Finer.

I had begun to wonder how anyone could remain viable as a national candidate after so many left-of-center voices had denounced him as unfit for the presidency on grounds of temperament and stability. Ronald Reagan had a tough time dealing with George H. W. Bush’s attack on his “voodoo economics,” but at least that was a policy judgment from a fellow Republican, not a character assessment.

Dean’s bad press is forcing him into the “mad scientist” corner from which escape is pretty difficult. Don’t expect me or any of the Dean critics to close the drawer on all these attacks on Dean once his nomination is secure and his opponents have gone home to sulk. The Kerry-Gephardt-Lieberman assessments of Dean may be too late to deny Dean the nomination, but they are accurate statements of why Dean is unfit for the presidency. I expect to be using them for the next 11 months, and I suspect the president’s team will as well.

A hint of how the Dean fans in the elite media are going to attempt to rehabilitate Dean appears in Monday’s Los Angeles Times in a column by the always-there-for-the-Democrats Ronald Brownstein: “On the Dean Campaign Trail, the Man in the Mirror is Bush.” (Not for nothing did Bill Clinton brand Brownstein as his favorite reporter. Along with Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, he is the most reliable anti-Bush scribbler from among the major papers in the D.C. media corps.)

Brownstein’s first line tells you all you need to know: “George W. Bush and Howard Dean: separated at birth?”

It is obvious to even Brownstein that Dean’s reputation as angry, unstable and truth-challenged can’t be rehabilitated, not with Dean’s embrace of loony conspiracy theories like the Saudis whispering warnings to Bush about the 9-11 attacks, Dean’s nutty declaration that “the capture of Saddam has not made America safer,” and last week’s flip-flop on frying Osama if he’s captured alive. Dean’s mouth works overtime at revealing the wild-eyed tin-foil wearer within.

Since Dean can’t really be built up, it will be necessary to define Bush down to Dean’s level, and Brownstein gives it a go: “Dean and Bush also share a tendency to sometimes speak before they think, and to dig in deeper when events seemingly demand retreat. More important, Dean is proving Bush’s double in his tendency to view the world in black and white. Bush has divided the globe into nations that support his view on how to combat terrorism and those who are with the terrorists: His guiding principle is that you’re either with him or against him.”

Note that Brownstein doesn’t provide any examples on Bush speaking before he thinks or digging in deeper when he ought to have retreated. And is Brownstein really arguing that Bush should divide the world a different way than pro- and anti-terrorism? If Brownstein’s thesis had any evidence to support it, it would help Dean out of the hole he has dug for himself.

But there isn’t any evidence, and Brownstein could have been counted on to provide such evidence if it was there. He doesn’t, serving up instead a few threadbare generalizations which don’t stand up for even a minute for anyone with a passing knowledge of Bush or Bush’s record in Texas or D.C. If there was a comparison with Dean’s “the Saudi’s warned” lunacy, don’t you think Brownstein would have used it?

Brownstein’s column is an extended effort at starting a “meme” on Bush-Dean: That they have the same personality and thus that the electorate can and should ignore Dean’s weird and unsettling personality because it is just like Bush’s.

Clever. Very clever. And doomed. Because while Brownstein might not see the differences between a president who mangles his syntax while pursuing a mainstream policy of national security abroad, and economic growth at home, and a candidate who indulges in the volatile mix of paranoid theories, huge ego and foreign policy by committees chaired by France, voters will distinguish between the two easily.

Kerry, Gephardt, Letterman and the Washington Post have got Dean’s number: He lacks basic qualifications to be president, beginning with his temperament. Brownstein and the Los Angeles Times don’t agree. Fine. But keep in mind that the Times was with Gray Davis until the bitter end. The paper and its staff aren’t exactly known for their accuracy or their objectivity.

In Campaign 2004, the Times will best serve the public as an early-warning system for lame Democratic Party rhetoric, like the idea that Dean and Bush are “separated at birth.” Even though it is still 2003, the opening line from Brownstein’s column may prove to be the worst opening line for any column in all of the reporting on Campaign 2004.

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