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There’s an old adage that, edited for content, goes like this: “If it walks like poop, talks like poop, it must be poop.” I’m not sure if it was Confucius or Iggy Pop who said it, but from its simple logic comes the inescapable truth that Howard Dean must be poop (i.e. — way too liberal to beat George W. Bush next November).

It’s precisely Dean’s transparent liberalism that makes him the guy Karl Rove “want[s] to face.” Yet, strangely, Dean’s loyalists insist the former Vermont Governor, despite his liberal walk and talk, is really just as middle-of-the-road as Bill Clinton. They’ll call him a fiscal conservative, despite his raging tax-aholism. They’ll laud Dean’s moderate social ideology, despite his signature on America’s only same-sex civil unions law. They’ll even claim he’s strong on defense, despite Dean’s flamboyant opposition to the war in Iraq. My response: bull poop.

Dean fancies himself a fiscal conservative for his budget-balancing successes as the governor of Vermont. Kudos to Dean, but the accomplishment hardly qualifies him as a fiscal conservative. For ordinary Americans, fiscal conservatism doesn’t just mean spending restraint, it means tax leniency. And in that dangerous realm for Democrats, Howard Dean has cast himself as less a Bill Clinton than a Walter Mondale, vowing to repeal the Bush tax cuts in their entirety. Newsflash to Dean: promising to punish the middle class is less fiscal discipline than political lunacy.

Then there’s Dean’s civil unions law. It’s true that Dean signed the legislation in large part because his state’s supreme court demanded it. But who cares? All voters will know is that Howard Dean is the only governor in the United States to sign “gay marriage” legislation and for many Americans that will be enough. Howard Dean might as well have been the bill’s chief sponsor — or a Fab Five member himself — because he’ll just be the gay candidate, plain and simple.

Look, I am a strong supporter of same-sex domestic partnerships as well as a weekly viewer of “Queer Eye.” I love gays, but I love winning elections more. And by allowing the Republicans, as they tried and failed to do against Bill Clinton in 1996, to turn this election into an argument about moral values — instead of about the awful job George Bush has done as president — we are giving them the election with a little pink bow around it.

What makes Dean most dangerous for Democrats is not so much that he talks like a tax-hiker or even that he walks like an alternative lifestyles-lover, but that he looks like a real girly-man on national security. Democrats have been struggling to show they can be strong on defense for the past 35 years. On nearly every other issue the American people trust Democrats more than Republicans. But on national security, Democrats still bear the mark of the beast (George McGovern). It’s called the Democratic Defense Credibility Gap, and Dean’s nomination will give it another 30-year shelf life.

Democrats may have been able to sneak a pot-smoking, draft-dodging, small-state governor in the White House in 1992 — when the evil empire was dead, the economy was in the doldrums and the president was a dandy — but it would be a miracle if we could do it again.

The Sept. 12 era is one in which foreign policy experience, military service and national security credentials are not merely bonus traits in a president; they are leadership characteristics that are fundamental in a president and of which Howard Dean has exactly none. Dean used his wealth and privilege to secure a medical deferment from military service in Vietnam for a back injury that somehow didn’t prevent him from skiing it up in Aspen over the course of the war. Further, Dean will be hard-pressed to prove himself as tough on terror as Bush, having opposed a war to which two-thirds of the country and a majority in Dean’s own party gave their support. The declining public support for Iraq is less an endorsement of Dean’s opposition to waging the war than a criticism of Bush’s failure at winning the peace. Taking out Saddam Hussein and forging a stable, democratic Iraq are separate issues for most Americans, and Dean’s failure to understand that may be his biggest liability.

Bush will raise and spend a quarter of a billion dollars on his reelection campaign, much of which will pay to produce really mean attack ads. If Karl Rove has his way and Dean is the nominee, look for the Bush campaign team to use the walks-like-poop/talks-like-poop argument to paint Dean as a tax-hiking, socialist, draft-dodging, pussy-footed, homosexual-loving terrorist. Mean? Yes. Effective? Definitely.

Dean has run a fantastic campaign by tapping into a very real anger that exists among many Democrats, including this one. I believe Dean when he says he wants to be the candidate for everybody, even guys with Confederate flags on the backs of their pickup trucks. Unfortunately, the reality is that Dean can only be the candidate for people with Darwin fishes on the backs of their Volvos and rainbow decals on the backs of their Jettas. He’s not a bad guy, but if he’s our standard bearer, Democrats are in deep poop.

Zach Jones is a junior in Davenport College.