Howard Dean took a victory lap yesterday.
Poised to claim the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) today, the former Vermont governor spent yesterday preparing for his transition and rallying the party's many caucuses, where he attacked Republicans for their policies while praising them for their political skills.
Dean will be elected by acclamation this morning and will begin his chairmanship with a speech and news conference before tackling the administrative challenges of taking over the party machinery from the departing chairman, Terence R. McAuliffe. He has assembled a transition team that includes a number of current DNC members, according to party officials, and said he intends to travel extensively, particularly in states won by President Bush last November.
In brief appearances before party caucuses, Dean said Democrats should have the moral high ground in the debates over values, but said Republicans have been more successful at delivering a consistent message. He said he hoped to use his chairmanship to help brand the Democrats more successfully.
"People know, or think they know, what the Republicans stand for," he told the DNC women's caucus. "I don't think they really stand for anything they say. But they have a message, right, and it's the same message every day and every year. . . . We know what we are. The trouble is, we haven't been so great at communicating exactly what we are."
Dean has assured Democratic congressional leaders and others that he will not attempt to set policy for the party, but he showed again yesterday that he is happy to take the lead in attacking the opposition. During a brief question period, he was asked why Republicans are seen as the party of values. When the audience asked him to repeat the question for those who could not hear, he said to laughter and applause, "The question was, how come the Republicans get to talk about moral values essentially when they don't have any?"
As Dean mapped plans for his chairmanship, the Democrats turned their plenary session over to congressional leaders and to two prospective presidential candidates in 2008, John Edwards, the party's vice presidential nominee last year, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
Edwards sought to debunk critics who say the Democrats don't stand for anything, arguing that the party will continue to stand with ordinary Americans against a Republican Party that he portrayed as closely allied with Wall Street and corporate interests. "George Bush's ownership society," he said, "is nothing more than an exclusive club with the doors closed to people who work hard for a living."
Richardson warned that Democrats need to be more than the party of opposition. "We cannot just be negative," he said. "We have got to have some new ideas."
Democrats, he said, must learn real lessons from the reality that extensive voter registration and mobilization were not enough to defeat Bush in 2004. "We tried so hard in the last election . . . but it wasn't enough," he said, adding later, "Gone are the days when we can simply rely on what we've done before. The time for introspection and second-guessing is over."
Richardson challenged Democrats to become more serious about reaching out to Hispanic voters, to competing in the South and West and to talk of grass-roots organizing. He said Democratic governors intend to play a more influential role in all these issues.
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) attacked Bush's budget and his proposal to restructure Social Security by allowing younger workers to create personal investment accounts with a portion of their payroll taxes.
Pelosi called Bush's budget "financially reckless" and "morally irresponsible." Democrats, she said, "know what is morally right" and will continue "to challenge the conscience of our country."
Reid, smarting from the Republican National Committee's distribution of a 13-page memo attacking him, accused the GOP of "dirty politics and attack-dog politics," vowing, "We're not going to let them get away with it."