Gagging Dr. Dean

Why does Howard Dean's own party consider him the most dangerous character in Washington?

Say what you will about Howard Dean, but there's no denying he unites his party. A year and a half ago, when candidate Dean headed to Iowa with a big lead in the polls and a formidable grassroots fundraising system, the Democratic Party's avatars banded together to attack him with a verve and single-mindedness they never came close to matching in the general campaign against George W. Bush. During the run-up to Iowa and New Hampshire, functionaries from other Democrats' campaigns were dispatched to dig up dirt on the former Vermont governor; the most memorable thing they found was an old bit of Canadian video in which Dean made fun of Iowa's caucus system. That clip did more damage than most in the press corps realized--Iowans are ferocious about their caucuses--as did the daily verbal blows Dean suddenly faced from his opponents.

From the start, there was an element of overkill in the proceedings that marked them as more than the usual gang-up-on-the-frontrunner drill. Nationally, a flurry of prominent Democratic voices spent the waning months of 2003 fretting to any reporter who would listen that Dean was untenable, unpredictable, outside the mainstream. The D.C. press corps, which dislikes interlopers fully as much as party bosses do, happily amplified their complaints. On the night he lost Iowa, Dean tried to rally campaign workers with a supremely ill-advised and out-of-character cheerleading whoop--it sounded like a doctor from Park Avenue auditioning to play trail boss in a John Wayne picture--and he was finished.

Ten tedious months of the portable though not electable animatronic exhibit known as the John Kerry campaign ensued, concluded by a loss to a divisive and widely unpopular president and a further hemorrhaging of seats in Congress. The defeat was so un-spinnable as to force the party into a public show of soul-searching. Terry McAuliffe, the Clintonite fundraiser described by one colleague as a "human money machine," announced he would step down as party chair. The problem was that among the party's lower strata, where the troublesome but regrettably necessary local organizers and activists dwell, Dean was still the single most popular figure in the Democratic fold. A couple of weeks before the February vote for DNC chair, front-line party regulars sat down and had a good cry with Howard Fineman of Newsweek:

[W]ith the DNC meeting approaching on February 12, party insiders have been conducting an urgent, so far fruitless, search for a consensus Dean-stopper. The Clintons don't like Dean on substance or style, seeing him as too left and too loose-lipped. But they're being careful.... Last week the search for a surefire Dean-stopper (if there is one) reached new levels, Newsweek has learned, with several governors--among them Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania and Bill Richardson of New Mexico--trying to gin up a last-ditch plan: Let Dean be chairman, but confine his role to pure nuts-and-bolts duties by layering him with a new 'general chairman' spokesman for the party. They abandoned the idea after realizing that they didn't have the votes to change the rules.... That left the anti-Dean forces with only one clear strategy: recycling the long list of his provocative statements.

Heed the last bit especially, because it goes a long way toward explaining what's happening now. For the first three months or so of his tenure as chair, Dean was strikingly absent from national view. His speeches and appearances were not touted on the DNC's web page or through national party e-mail lists. They were covered only in local media for the most part. Whatever scant national press he got came from riling up right-wing agitators, as when he made a drug-sniffing gesture while talking about Rush Limbaugh during an April speech in Minneapolis. What staggering insensitivity to mock a man with a medical problem! spluttered Matt Drudge. The top Republican flacks may lack all shame, but they have a first-rate sense of humor.

Next it was the Democrats' turn to declare open season on Dean. The catalyst was a series of "provocative statements" concerning Tom DeLay, the idle rich, and the Republicans' status as a white Christian enclave. As to the particulars of his remarks, more shortly. But first a brief roll call of some of the prominent Democrats who have damned the party chair with criticism or surpassingly faint praise lately. When Dean proclaimed that a lot of Republicans did not work for a living, it was too much for John Edwards: "The chairman of the DNC is not the spokesman for the party.... He's one voice. I don't agree with it." Also for Joe Biden, who seemed to speak from the same script: "He doesn't speak for me with that kind of rhetoric, and I don't think he speaks for the majority of Democrats." Harold Ford, Jr. of Tennessee, a Congressional up-and-comer whose fate it will someday be to lose to Barack Obama in the Democrats' version of American Idol, said: "It may get to the point where the party may need to look elsewhere for leadership, because he does not speak for me." A guest at a party planning confab in the home of Clinton pollster Mark Penn later told Fineman, "There was a ton of positive energy at the house, except for the fear and loathing of Dean." Also piling on: Mark Warner, Ben Nelson, Dianne Feinstein, Barney Frank, Harold Ickes, and the press aide to Sen. Hillary Clinton. It's a pretty impressive field, encompassing most of the presumed or dark horse Democratic presidential candidates for 2008.

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