The most intriguing political development in Oregon last week did not take place in the Capitol. Nor was it at the Multnomah Athletic Club, where Mayor Vera Katz gave her 43rd consecutive State of the Task Force address. No, for political junkies, the place to be was to a pizza parlor on North Mississippi Avenue, where 90 Portlanders, packed as tight as a tin of anchovies, watched a video about Vermont Gov. Howard Dean--the only presidential candidate so far to generate any real buzz among Democrats. (Secretary of State Bill Bradbury and former Gov. Barbara Roberts are officially on board.)
Nursing a faint hangover, the Nose skulked into Mississippi Pizza slightly out of joint. What's the big fuss over Dean, anyway? Sure, his website (www.deanforamerica.com) sounds the predictable progressive notes: pro-choice, better schools, universal health care. Sure, he signed the same-sex-union bill. Sure, he's from Vermont. Big deal. As the Dean brigade popped a video of some of the guv's "greatest hits" into a small-screen TV, the Nose found himself wishing he'd stayed home for The Simpsons.
Then The Nose caught the scent of something he hasn't sniffed in a long time: Democrats who are excited about a presidential candidate.
Without question, Dean's momentum right now is fueled primarily by his opposition to the war in Iraq. Of the dozen people who spoke to the Nose, most named the war as their No. 1 issue--and spoke about Dean in almost messianic terms.
"He's the most exciting thing to happen in politics in a long time," said software worker Joan Coates. "He's a ray of hope in a dark time."
"I haven't felt like this since Eugene McCarthy,"said retired businessman Tom Denhart, referring to the dovish ex-Senator who was trounced by Hubert Humphrey in the '68 Democratic primary.
To Americans sick of the microwave patriotism dished up by Fox News and its imitators, Dean's anti-war stance is like manna from heaven. But how will it look during the New Hampshire primary nine months from now?
By then, with any luck, Saddam will be history--and opposing the war will make as much sense as opposing the discovery of Neptune. Dean's pro-war Democratic rivals will home in on this issue like a Tomahawk missile on an Iraqi hideout.
All of which is a shame, because the war question actually obscures Dean's biggest virtue--his mastery of the public purse.
If Howard Dean, rather than John Kitzhaber, had been at the helm in Oregon during the booming '90s, our state lawmakers wouldn't be trying to decide whether to balance the budget on the backs schoolchildren or mentally ill adults.
During 12 years as governor of Vermont, while Oregon went on a spending binge, Dean managed to build up a rainy-day fund. As a result, Vermont is one of the few states not whipsawed by budget cuts.
The nation needs a president who can balance budgets. Thanks to Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut and the multibillion-dollar tab rolling up in Iraq, America is drowning in red ink.
Fiscal discipline is seldom popular. But Dean's biggest applause line on Wednesday suggested that unpopular issues can still be vote-getters.
"This party needs to look itself in the mirror and ask, is this party about winning the next election, or is it about changing America?" he said.
The crowd at Mississippi Pizza whooped and yelled. Right now, those cheers are directed at stopping bombs from dropping on Baghdad. If Dean can shift his target to the raid on the U.S. Treasury, he'll fare better than the Democrats' last "peace" candidate.