When Was The Last Time You Heard a Politician Say Something Insightful?

It happened to me today. A politician with insight… who’da thunk it?

I just got back from the big Howard Dean rally in Falls Church, Virginia, kicking off his “Sleepless Summer” campaign swing. It was the first time I’d ever seen Dean in person, and I was lucky enough to snag a place only a couple rows back from the podium, so I got to watch him up close and personal.

It was impressive! Dean is a forceful speaker, and he’s not afraid to take Bush and the administration head-on. Anyone out there who thinks that he’s going to be easy to tag as a nutty liberal is dead wrong — much of his speech was on the need to balance the budget, and he spoke strongly and passionately about his support for the first Gulf War and the intervention in Afghanistan. Don’t let his opposition to the war in Iraq fool you into thinking that Howard Dean is some kind of dove.

What he said that really struck me, though, came when he was discussing national security and how to keep America strong and safe. He spoke for a while about the Cold War, and he made the contention that a strong military, while necessary for victory in that conflict, wasn’t what really won it for us. What won it was that the people who suffered under Soviet rule wanted to be like us. They looked to America as an example of how the world could be — and, when enough of them had come to that conclusion, they rose up and freed themselves in a remarkably bloodless revolution. What put us over the top, Dean argued, was that we had a moral mission that the world respected, and that undermined the authority of the Soviets so much that their empire crumbled from within.

Dean then contrasted those days with our current situation. How many people in the Arab world, he asked, see America as a hopeful example? How many of those people see us as wielding any kind of moral authority? The answer, of course, is not many — and Dean argues that until that fact changes, until the people of the region see us striving to better their condition instead of just using them as geopolitical pawns, we’ll never get the kind of support we’ll need to drain the poison out of that troubled place.

That, I thought, was an interesting analysis, and one I hadn’t heard put forward before. The Republicans are fond of crediting the victory in the Cold War to Ronald Reagan’s military buildup, arguing that we spent so much on defense that the Russians bankrupted themselves trying to keep up. That may be true, but it doesn’t explain why the people of Eastern Europe were so ready to rally behind leaders like Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, leaders who promised to bring them out of the East and into the West. Dean’s hypothesis explains this neatly — and also explains the reticence of Iraqis and Afghans to support U.S. action in their country (even when that action frees them from tyrannical dictatorship).

As I left the rally, I thought that this is what I want a politician to do — make me think, put forward ideas, challenge my prejudices. Dean did all those things in his speech. I think he’s a remarkable candidate who could make a credible Democratic nominee, and maybe a good President to boot.

I came home, went to my computer, and donated $50 to the Dean campaign. Can you say the same? If you’re not supporting Dean, that’s fine — but who are you supporting?

We live in challenging times. Americans are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan every day. The economy continues to slide down the drain. President Bush is hiding crucial information from us on who was behind 9/11, and he continues to be unable to verify his claims of imminent threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, while North Korea flaunts its atomic weapons program and threatens to become an exporter of nuclear weapons to anyone with hard currency to pay for them (like, say, millionaire Saudi terrorists). Civil liberties and basic freedoms are daily ignored and compromised, with no end in sight.

If this state of affairs bothers you — if you want America to be someplace you’re proud to be from again — then what are you doing to make that happen? Apathy and non-involvement won’t change anything. Howard Dean’s message is that each of us has to act if we’re going to make that happen. I’m willing to step up and meet that challenge. Are you?