By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 9, 2005
Howard Dean's recent spate of verbal zingers has fellow Democrats wringing their hands, while generating a big shrug from the Democratic National Committee chairman himself.
The latest flap came Monday when Dean said of the Republican Party, "It's pretty much a white, Christian party." The comment drew fire from Dean's GOP opponents, but it also rankled Democrats, who have been nervous ever since the outspoken former Vermont governor and presidential candidate won the DNC post.
Although many admire Dean's fundraising and party-building skills, they worry about his penchant for red-hot rhetoric. Last week, Dean said of Republicans, "A lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives." Earlier he suggested that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.), now under an ethics cloud, ought to return to Houston to serve jail time.
But the "Christian party" comment has the potential of repelling millions of voters, and it had many Democrats running for cover. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) told reporters yesterday, "I don't think the statement [Dean] made was a helpful statement," and she attributed it to "the exuberance" of being in the job.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), one of Dean's opponents in the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries, said the comment was "way over the top" and said he will ask Dean to explain himself during a previously scheduled meeting with Senate Democrats today. "I'm sure I won't be the only one," Lieberman said.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who chairs the House Democrats' campaign committee, said he would prefer that Dean pick different targets. "There's plenty of things to talk about -- sweetheart deals to tobacco, pharmaceutical industry, big oil," Emanuel said, naming a few industries that he and other Democrats accuse the GOP of coddling. Democrats "don't need gratuitous hits," he said.
A few Democrats spoke in Dean's defense, saying the Republicans are bound to jump on every blunt utterance. "It's a diversion from the real, central issues," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.). Others simply ducked the issue. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy said hesitantly of his fellow Vermonter, "He's done a superb job with fundraising." Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), when asked about Dean, shrugged and kept walking into the Senate chamber to vote.
Dean's assessment is similar to Kennedy's. "They're trying to make me the issue," he said on NBC's "Today" show yesterday. Typically, Dean refused to back down, noting that he is a white Christian. And he cited a recent op-ed by former senator John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), an Episcopalian minister, who wrote that "Republicans have transformed our party into the political wing of the Christian conservatives."
The chairman's popularity with the Democratic base has made some of Dean's critics think twice.
Former vice presidential nominee John Edwards said of Dean at a Nashville fundraiser Saturday night: "He's a voice. I don't agree with it." But Monday, the DNC Web log featured an entry from Edwards's blog emphasizing their common beliefs. "We both agree with this basic truth: This Republican president and this Republican majority are not doing what they should be doing for working people in this country," the entry read. "Howard and I have been saying the same thing about this for years. Hear that? The same thing. For years."
Democrats are playing into Republicans' hands by allowing Dean to distract them, some party strategists say. "It seems to me that the shots at the chairman from Democratic elites says more about our party, sadly, than it does about Chairman Dean," said Jim Jordan, a Democratic consultant who has advised Dean. Jordan groused, "Not much of a mystery really why we're the minority party."
Even Lieberman, one of the more outspoken critics of Dean's predecessor, said that Dean "is being held to a higher standard" because of his history as a presidential candidate, and that his comments are no more outrageous than those of previous party leaders. Terence R. McAuliffe, Dean's predecessor, was hardly a shrinking violet -- he caught heat for accusing President Bush of going AWOL from the Texas National Guard. Bush adviser Karl Rove once called McAuliffe "a wild man."
Another unpredictable DNC chairman was Edward G. Rendell, now Pennsylvania's Democratic governor. After the 2000 election, when the Supreme Court reversed Florida vote tallies in the post-election recount, Rendell asserted on MSNBC that Al Gore "should act now and concede." DNC spokeswoman Jenny Backus hurriedly backtracked. "Ed Rendell wasn't speaking for the Democratic National Committee. He was speaking for himself, and that isn't the position of the DNC," she told reporters.
Backus, who has worked for five DNC leaders, said the Dean flap is predictable. "Every [election] cycle you can count on something," she says. "Bashing the DNC chair is one of Washington's favorite parlor games."