Clarence Page has an amusing column that puts a new spin on an old lament:

While cattle farmers fret about mad cow disease, Democratic Party leaders wrestle with another sort of malady. Call it the “Angry Howard Syndrome.”

Its symptoms include a tendency by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the front-runner in the Democratic presidential polls and fundraising, to insult members and factions of his own party whose help he may very well need, if he wins the party’s presidential nomination.

Dean’s not the only one afflicted. Angry Howard Syndrome is contagious. It unleashes reactions in some of his rivals, particularly Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, that President Bush’s campaign could easily and gleefully use against Dean later, if Dean wins the Democratic presidential nomination.

What’s going on here? Put in its starkest terms, Angry Howard Syndrome is the latest manifestation of an ancient Democratic Party affliction, a divide between its sober pragmatists and its passionate idealists.

On one side, the party has its pragmatists who want more than anything to beat the other party. The pragmatists worry about the details of issues and ideas later. After all, the party’s leading candidates actually agree on much more than they disagree. Even on the pivotal issue of foreign policy, Dean and his opponents all agree that they disagree with Bush’s pre-emptive, go-it-alone approach.

But that’s not always enough for the idealists, some of whom have told me they are less concerned with making a victory than with making a point–or two or three. Think of the idealists as being one step away from voting for Ralph Nader or Jesse Jackson, should the opportunity arise again.

Of course, Republicans have their pragmatic and idealistic wings too. But since the Barry Goldwater disaster of 1964, Republicans have learned to temper their passions behind a public wall of unity and discipline, no matter how long their knives might be in private.

Democrats, by contrast, seem to relish the circular firing squad.

I’m not sure this distinction is entirely accurate–Pat Buchanan’s venting did Bush the Elder little good in 1992 and there has certainly been a lot of carping by the right against Republicans in general.

The difference, it seems to me, is that the “idea” wing of the Democratic party is simply more out of step with the electorate than that of the GOP. Most Democrats are on the moderate left, somewhere between Bill Clinton and John Edwards, but the base is much more radical. Because of his unique political skills, Clinton was able to rally much of that base behind him and sell them on his New Democrat platform. But the party activists appear tired of settling for moderate candidates at the moment.

The Republicans are less radical because they have two idea wings that check some of the worst impulses of one another. The traditional wing of the GOP is northeastern, moderate on social issues, and extremely suspicious of governmental regulation, especially of the economy. Over the last thirty years or so, they’ve been joined by mostly southern Christian conservatives who very much want governmental regulation to promote “family values.” The last group had been part of the Democratic coalition for generations, but became increasingly Republican as a result of the leftward swing of that party in the 1960s.

While the GOP has its share of extremists, their values are at least on the surface more in tune with the population as a whole. While the conservative wing is far more radical on religion than the electorate, it’s far easier to win on a platform of God, family values, and protecting the life of the unborn than on one that’s radically secularist. Similarly, while many Americans are uneasy about the war in Iraq, they want to believe their president is fighting the war for a good reason and want to support the troops. A nominee that appeals to a radicalized base is likely going to alienate most Americans.

The Joe Liebermans and Dick Gephardts are so vocal in opposition to a candidate they perceive as extreme because they fear for the future of their party as a viable political entity. The Pat Buchanans of the Republican party are shrill because they think the nominees are too far to the center and thus insufficiently pure. That’s a big difference.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. norbizness says:

    Two points:

    A plurality of Americans consider themselves a Democrat over a Republican or Independent (34-31-24). The Senate and House are split about evenly. The current President received 500,000 fewer votes than the Democrat in 2000, and currently holds a 5-point lead on Dean. If there’s a huge built-in lead for the GOP, I certainly don’t see it.

    And you really think that Lincoln Chafee and Olympia Snowe cancel out Tom DeLay and Bill Frist?

  2. John Lemon says:

    Maybe Angry Howard could find solace in religion (see my comments on post below).

  3. McGehee says:

    Of course, Norby, what people tell pollsters matters a lot less than how they vote on Election Day, and the results in 2002 suggest that there’s some dissonance between the two.

  4. James Joyner says:


    I’m not talking about the mainstream Democratic party but rather the core adherents. Delay is fairly radical but not a contender for nation-wide office. Frist is frankly rather moderate, especially for a Tennessean. I suspect he’ll be a viable presidential candidate in the near term. Indeed, if anything, he’ll have trouble rallying the base.

    Congressional candidates run state and local races, so party is hardly that important–which explains both Olympia Snowe and Zell Miller.

    Gore was a DNC Democrat with a moderate-conservative running mate, an incumbent VP with a booming economy, etc.

  5. Rick Ballard says:


    Best available information (that I am aware of) regarding party sentiment is this Pew Research report which gives the spread as 31%D – 30%R. The report notes that this is a shift from a similiar study done in ’97 which had a 33%D – 27%R outcome. The Senate is split evenly but the House is not. There is no “huge” built in lead for the Rep’s but the Texas redistricting plus 5 Dem Senators retiring in the South (where no serious Dem Presidential candidate has any weight whatsoever) does not augur well for a good ’04 showing by the Dems.

  6. norbizness says:

    Rick: I pulled the party affiliation numbers from a Harris poll in 2003. Also, I don’t disagree with some gloomy electoral trends for Democrats… but James’ sentence “While the GOP has its share of extremists, their values are at least on the surface more in tune with the population as a whole” doesn’t exactly coincide even with your poll that has 30% of the population willing to describe themselves as Republicans.

  7. James Joyner says:


    Read the post. The whole thing is about the extremists in the parties, not the parties as a whole. The “their values” I refer to is that of the extremists.

    The parties are both catch-all parties at the aggregate level. One is slightly right-of-center, one slightly left-of-center at the national level. But the Democrats’ core is further away from the American mainstream than is the Republican core.

  8. Rick Ballard says:


    Agree with your points about the fringe of both parties but it’s January and no primaries have occured. To me, Dean’s candidacy has been a Hail Mary by the fringe. I am betting that Gephart will be the nominee. The NYT, WaPo and AP are all working against him, union money is still on the sidelines and almost every day he switches which foot he shoves in his mouth. Not particularly awe inspiring.

  9. Kathy K says:

    As a dedicated Independent, I’d have to say that the extremists on the Republican side are as far off as the extremists on the Democratic side.

    I wish the primary campaigns did not tend so much to pander to the extreme elements of both parties.