Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean delivered a broadside at President Bush and the Republican Party yesterday, accusing the president of failing to protect private pensions in the United States and the GOP of embracing a "dark, difficult and dishonest vision" for the country.
The former Vermont governor and 2004 presidential candidate whipped up a liberal audience at the annual Take Back America conference hosted by the Campaign for America's Future with calls for election reform and attacks on what he called "the culture of corruption and abuse of power in Washington."
Former Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, who spoke later in the day, took aim at critics who say Democrats should modify their positions to make themselves more appealing to the public. "How about if we actually stand up and fight with passion for what we believe in?" he said to cheers from the audience.
Dean sought to broaden the debate over Bush's proposal to restructure Social Security to include the issue of private pensions, citing Labor Department statistics estimating that private companies underfunded their pension plans by $450 billion last year.
He suggested that Bush is responsible for the failure of private industry to protect those pensions. "The president wants to take away our Social Security," he said, "and then he's going to take away the private pension plans, too? What does he think ordinary Americans live on after they get to be 65 years old?"
The only solution that Dean suggested is to make pensions portable, saying pension plans "ought not to be controlled by companies, they ought to be controlled by the people who those pensions belong to." Pension portability was not a major issue in the Democrats' 2004 presidential campaign.
Dean also took a jab at the Republicans with the kind of throwaway line that delights audiences of rank-and-file Democrats but that sometimes has caused party leaders to cringe. Speaking about election reform, he said it is unconscionable for voters to have to stand in lengthy lines at polling places given the demands of work and family. "Republicans," he said, "I guess can do that because a lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives."
In a statement, Republican National Committee press secretary Tracey Schmitt charged Dean with engaging in an angry diatribe, saying the comment "makes it clear that Dean's priority is to generate mudslinging headlines rather than engage in substantive debate."
Edwards accused the administration of failing the moral test of using the government to protect those in need by saying that the president's budget favors the rich while cutting programs important to those less fortunate.
He also took issue with those who give Bush principal credit for promoting freedom and democracy abroad. "I want to be really clear about something," said the former senator from North Carolina. "America standing for freedom is not new, and freedom does not belong to one political party. And it does not just belong to our country."