HOWARD DEAN: THE UNNADER?

Thank you, Howard Dean. You were the right guy at the right time running for the wrong office. It wasn't just those ill-conceived comments that did you in, or even the parade-of-states scream in Iowa, that overplayed sound bite of a man who clearly had been running on adrenaline for far too long. It was more that there was about you the aura of a man who had wandered onstage at a play without knowing his part. The least surprising postmortem comment I read about your candidacy was in a Washington Post story. You were quoted as telling a colleague early on, "The problem is, I'm now afraid I might win."

As befits a physician, you brought this race to life. You galvanized the most disengaged group of voters in the country. Since 1972, when the voting age was lowered to 18, the rate of participation among the young has dropped steadily. The interesting thing is that this is the same generation that has so surpassed its elders in volunteer work. Only four in 10 bothered to vote in 2000, a record low; yet according to one study, four in 10 gave their time last year to some needy organization, a record high.

The message is clear: in hands-on action, they are confident they can make a difference. But politics seems like an inexorable inertia machine. It even feels like a joke: many younger Americans get their political news from Jon Stewart or "Saturday Night Live." And why not, when one of the greatest financial beneficiaries of the war in Iraq seems to be a corporation once led by the vice president? You couldn't make this stuff up.

But the young were not the only ones who were shaken out of their lethargy. You also forced the Democratic Party to snap out of the fugue state in which it lingered after September 11. When you stepped forward and spoke up against the unilateral military action in Iraq, you began to wake the party face men from their too-long enchantment in the garden of go-along-to-get-along. The electorate perked up, too, and there were record turnouts in the early contests, although many voters had decided you were a catalyst, not a candidate, and threw their support elsewhere.

You raised the level of John Kerry's game--and the pitch of his voice. The Democrats started acting authentic again, not like moderate Republicans who were willing to be friendly to union members and black women for old times' sake. The Pew Research Center did a survey that showed, by the numbers, the real and substantial differences between the parties. Two obvious examples: seven out of 10 Democrats believe government should do more to help the poor, while only four out of 10 Republicans share that belief. That proportion flips when the question is whether the government is run for the benefit of all; 69 percent of Republicans agree with that contention, while only 44 percent of Democrats do.

But there are still plenty of independents out there waiting to be persuaded, and plenty of disenchanted young people who think the new boss is likely to be the same as the old boss. The party needs you to help bring those people to the table, and to get them to vote. They were the people you engaged in the primary. Some of them are the people who, in a recent poll, were so disenchanted that they were willing to turn in alarming numbers to Ralph Nader, the Harold Stassen of his generation.

Nader says he wants to make a point, but I suspect you would prefer to change policy. He will be satisfied with some twisted Pyrrhic victory; you want an actual one. It's a rare man who says that his real interest is the welfare of the people and means it, even if there's not much personal gain associated. Maybe you are that man.

Your Web site, so widely touted as the new town hall in the Internet age, has been frozen in time, its press releases ending on Feb. 18. But last week you began to thaw, meeting with John Kerry in Washington. He's not your dream candidate; he has to sidestep all that happened while the Democrats were comatose in Congress, particularly that war resolution. But you know that he will be far better on the issues you care about--health care, fiscal policy, the safety net, reproductive rights--than the Republican alternative.

Unlike most catalyst candidates, who make things happen and then disappear, you could use your influence to bring young people to the polls, to convince them that what happens in the Oval Office really will affect their lives and that they have a stake in affecting the outcome. You could convince like-minded independents that there is a real difference between the two parties and point out where their true interests lie.

Neither of those groups believes in altruism in politics. Hell, no one believes in altruism in politics. But wouldn't it be all of a piece with your historic insurgent candidacy if you created a historic altruistic role? There probably wouldn't be anything in it for you except the knowledge that you'd done something important for what you believed. But actually witnessing a politician doing that might rev up the voters just as much as your strange and improbable campaign did.