Unrepentant after a week of controversy over his inflammatory remarks, Democratic Chairman Howard Dean told party leaders yesterday that casting traditionally liberal issues in moral terms is a key to breaking Republicans' eight-year hold on the White House.
Dean acknowledged that he sees his party's national campaign apparatus as being "30 years behind" the one fielded in November by the Bush-Cheney campaign, and said the solution is for Democrats to be tough, describe themselves boldly and get organized in all 50 states.
"People want us to fight, and we are here to fight," Dean said during a quarterly meeting of the party's 64-member executive committee. "We are not going to lie down in front of the Republican machine anymore."
Dean's aides said he now realizes he needs to choose his words more carefully but plans to keep the pressure on Republicans.
Several key Democrats had said early last week that Dean should resign but concluded by week's end that there was no viable movement to oust him. Dean yesterday embraced his reputation for volatility, saying he is being buoyed by activists and donors. At one point, Chicago alderman Joseph A. Moore had trouble getting recognized and joked that next time he would "jump up and down."
"That's my job!" Dean said, and the room shook with applause.
The Democratic National Committee's lead pollster, Cornell Belcher, said that religious people who have been stymied economically represent a huge opportunity for the party, and that the challenge is to portray moral values as "not just gay marriage and abortion."
It amounted to a call for the party to reclaim Reagan Democrats, the blue-collar social conservatives who have voted largely Republican for the past 20 years. In a possible future play for President Bush's voters, the party announced the creation of a Veterans and Military Families Council.
The party, determined to compete in what Dean called "the Mississippis and the Kansases," has vowed to put paid organizers with four-year commitments in every state, and is starting a monthly donation program for small givers.
Dean and the pollster provided the most specific blueprint yet for a party where a multitude of factions and potential candidates are competing to point the way back from Sen. John F. Kerry's (D-Mass.) loss to Bush, 19 states to 31 states. "We have not spoken about moral values in this party for a long time," Dean said. "The truth is, we're Democrats because of our moral values. It's a moral value to make sure that kids don't go to bed hungry at night. . . . It is a moral value not to go out on golf trips paid for by lobbyists."
Belcher, the pollster, said the emphasis that many voters placed on moral values in November is "not a call to move to the right." He said that a lot of what he called "faith voters" -- those for whom religion plays an equal or more important role in determining their vote than conventional issues such as education -- "are up for grabs." He said those voters can be reached by acknowledging their fears about raising their children.
Strategists for both presidential campaigns detected a late shift to Bush by lower-income voters who were concerned about terrorism and values. Matthew Dowd, former chief strategist for Bush-Cheney, said these voters "decided they were voting in the national interest rather than their self interest on both the economy and national security."
Belcher said his "faith voters" are among the most economically anxious voters in the entire electorate. "They are not out of reach for us," he said. "They're not the crazy, right-winger extremist voters. They're the moms and pops." Belcher, founder of Brilliant-Corners Research and Strategies, titled his presentation "A Mosaic of a Presidency in Decline."
Dean, 56, a physician and former Vermont governor, briefly was the front-runner in last year's race for the Democratic presidential nomination by stoking a narrow but intense passion for "people-powered Howard" and relying heavily on Web organizing and fundraising. Many prominent Democrats in Washington had publicly opposed his selection as DNC chairman in February. Lawmakers have complained that he does not consult them enough, and major donors have asserted that he does not schmooze them as his predecessor, Terence R. McAuliffe, did. Dean had been criticized within his own party for comments that included the observation that the Republicans "all look the same" and are "pretty much a white Christian party." An undaunted Dean, noting some "catty articles in the press this week about fundraising," said the party had raised "over $100,000 in 24 hours on the Web, unsolicited."
"People don't know where we stand on a lot of issues," he said. "I believe this country's a Democratic country, with a big 'D.' If we got 48 percent of the vote, with their machine and our 30 years behind theirs, then this is a country that if voters vote and if they understand what we believe in, we're going to win. Now, that's why Republicans like to suppress the vote."
Donald L. Fowler, DNC chairman from 1995 to 1997, said Dean did a good job of "putting to rest some of the unrest of the last week" by focusing on issues and values rather than personalities. Fowler's son, Donnie, ran against Dean for chairman.
The executive committee is Dean's core of support, and no dissent came up publicly during the two-hour meeting. Chris Gallaway, 28, president of Young Democrats of America, said Dean had invigorated the party. "We knew who Howard Dean was when we elected him," Gallaway said.
Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a state representative from South Carolina, said most of the griping originated within the Beltway. "I just hope they don't convince him to be more reticent," she said.
Urging that health insurance be made available for every American, Dean said the party will "stand up for what only Democrats have done in the last 40 years in this country -- we're going to have a balanced budget." He called for "a strong defense, based on international cooperation," and said Democrats will equip soldiers "properly before we send them anywhere and we will treat them with dignity, without cutting their benefits when they get home."
Dean derided the attempted congressional intervention in the case of Terri Schiavo, whose feeding tube was removed in March. "Do we think the American people want to have those kinds of decisions made by families, or should they be made by Tom DeLay and the politicians in Washington?" Dean asked. "A moral value is personal responsibility and individual freedom. And that is what Democrats are going to start to stand for -- moral values."