Former Vermont governor Howard Dean claimed the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee by acclamation yesterday and used his opening speech to attack President Bush and the Republicans for "fiscal recklessness," saying the administration's new budget brings "Enron-style accounting to our nation's capital."
The former presidential candidate, who campaigned in the primaries as someone who would represent "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," struck a more moderate tone on his first day as party chairman. He steered clear of subjects such as the war in Iraq, the issue that first fueled his rise as a presidential candidate, and said his party must find a more effective way to talk about the politically charged issue of abortion and do a more effective job of reaching out to people of all faiths.
Dean assumes the chairmanship of a party still reeling from its losses in 2004, including the defeat of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in a presidential race many in the party believed they would win, as well as shrunken ranks in the House and Senate that have driven home the reality that they are now the minority party in Washington.
Dean's election as the successor to outgoing chairman Terence R. McAuliffe brings a high-profile politician to a post generally filled by a fundraiser or political technician, and his candidacy has generated excitement and concern in the ranks of Democrats here and elsewhere.
Democrats count Dean's proven ability to raise big money through small donations and his commitment to spreading power outside Washington as important assets in his new role. But because of his propensity to spark controversy on policy and political matters and his northeastern roots -- symbolic to some of the party's liberal bent -- many Democrats worry that he could prove to be a detriment to the party, particularly in the southern and western states won by Bush in November.
Dean said yesterday he will spend much of his time in coming months in the red states of the South and West. "I think that's where we need a lot of work," he said. "I think that's where people are most skeptical about the Democratic Party, and I think the way to get people not to be skeptical about you is to show up and talk and say what you believe."
Dean faces a major job of rebuilding the party's infrastructure in the states while preparing for gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey this fall and for the midterm elections in 2006. What role the often outspoken leader will play in steering the party on a new course in message and policy remains a question, with Democratic elected officials cautioning him to defer to them and Dean, for now, agreeing.
Questioned about Iraq, Dean said his views are well known and that he stands by them. But he added, "Most of the policy pronouncements are going to be coming from the leadership of the Congress, not from me."
The election of Dean capped a remarkable political comeback for the former presidential candidate, whose campaign imploded in Iowa just over a year ago. "If you told me one year ago that I'd be standing here today, as your choice for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, I wouldn't have believed you," he told the delegates. "And neither would have a lot of other people."
Before his defeat in the presidential race, however, he showed others in the party the power, energy and fundraising capacity of the party's grass roots. Kerry and the national committee later tapped into that same energy in the general election, and Democratic leaders see it as one of their most significant institutional assets to emerge from an otherwise disappointing election in 2004.
Dean rode that same grass-roots enthusiasm to victory yesterday. He overcame strong initial resistance to his candidacy among Democratic elected officials and others in the party establishment with a focused and methodical campaign that eventually drove all his rivals to the sidelines. That turned yesterday's election into a celebration among the 447 voting members of the national committee and hundreds of other Democrats in attendance.
Dean said in his post-election news conference that he will not be a candidate for president in 2008 and instead will work for the next four years to rebuild state and local parties and put Democrats in a position to compete in all states.
Dean said Democrats should not be afraid to stand up for what they believe, but he cast the party's core beliefs in mainstream language, avoiding some of the bombast of his presidential campaign. Asked whether there was a new, more subdued Howard Dean on view, he said, "I'm not a Zen person. It's hard to answer stylistic questions. I am who I am. . . . It's not intentional."
In his speech, Dean repeatedly stressed fiscal responsibility as a touchstone of Democratic policies. "We Democrats believe in fiscal responsibility, and we're the only ones who have delivered it," he said. He accused Republicans of "borrow and spend" politics, adding that the fiscal record of the administration shows that "Americans cannot trust Republicans with their money."
Dean said Bush's Social Security plan would shred the social safety net while piling more debt on younger Americans. "Social Security is one of the proudest achievements of the Democratic Party, and we don't intend to let it fall victim to a dishonest scheme that only serves to heap greater debt on America's young people," he said.
On national security, an area that proved to be a vulnerability for Kerry against Bush, Dean said Democrats stood for "strong and smart" policies and that there was no reason to be defensive about their positions.
"It was Democrats who pushed to create a Department of Homeland Security," he said. "It was Democrats who pushed to make our airlines safer. It is Democrats who are now working to make sure we close the remaining gaps in our security. It was Democrats who demanded reform of the intelligence community. And it is Democrats who are pushing for a foreign policy that honestly deals with the threats of today, and the threats of tomorrow -- like securing the nuclear materials around the world."
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman called Dean shortly after his election to congratulate him and later issued a statement pledging a vigorous but civil debate. "I congratulate Howard Dean on his election as DNC chairman and look forward to engaging in a constructive dialogue with him about the major issues facing our nation," he said.