Gagging Dr. Dean

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

Two obvious questions, then. Why are so many of the most powerful Democrats afraid of Howard Dean? And can anyone so reviled by both D.C. party establishments be all bad?


Well, of course, everyone--at least everyone serious enough to steep themselves like teabags in the official line of chatter--knows the answer to the first question. Democrats are afraid that Dean's incendiary leftist ravings will drive whatever sensible Americans they still retain into the arms of Republicans. Shades of McGovern and all that. The premise won't withstand much scrutiny, but since both parties and the press are on the same page about Dean, it doesn't have to. Let's revisit the three recent Dean quotes that have elicited the most bipartisan artillery fire.

Jay Bevenour

On June 2, Dean threw a bit of red meat to a gathering of party activists. Concluding a comment about a shortage of voting stations in Ohio last November, he jibed that Republicans might not understand the hardship of missing work to stand in long voting lines because "a lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives." Miraculously, the building in which Dean spoke these words did not collapse around him, but beneath it the foundation of the Republic trembled and threatened to break apart. Republicans the party of privilege? Who but a hateful troll like Dean could even conceive such a mad thought?

The media deserve a lot of credit for making a scandal of it, readily eliding Dean's comment about GOP elites into a remark about "many Republicans" (Boston Globe) or finally "Republicans" in general (San Francisco Chronicle). Of the various remarks for which Dean has been pilloried lately, Democrats were most vociferous in distancing themselves from this one. The reason was simple: The sort of folk Dean held up to contempt are the main funders of the Democratic Party, too. Thanks to New York Times tax reporter David Cay Johnston's book Perfectly Legal, we know a little more about the composition of what he terms the "political donor class." We know first of all that it's very small and very rich: By Johnston's calculation, about one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans give 80 percent of the total moneys received by the two major political parties. Many of the big donors, especially the corporate bundlers, make a point of playing both sides; many give to one party or the other. But it all works out in the end, since they have far more in common with each other than with the other 99-plus percent of the country. Most of what you need to know about the futility and corruption of the Democratic Party--the me-tooism, the abject fear of fighting spirit or fighting words, the overarching role of money in all of the above--is summed up in this little episode.

A few days later and on the other side of the country, Dean told a San Francisco gathering, "The Republicans are not very friendly to different kinds of people. They're a pretty monolithic party. They pretty much--they all behave the same and they all look the same and they all--you know, it's pretty much a white Christian party." As soundbites go, this is incontestably clumsy. Dean ought to have learned by now not to set up tee-shots like "white Christians" for his antagonists when he's talking about a more particular claque of religious conservatives. That aside, it's quite clear what Dean was saying if only because it has been stated more elegantly by disaffected Republicans. John Danforth, the former GOP senator from Missouri, wrote last March in the New York Times:

By a series of recent initiatives, Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians.... The problem is not with people or churches that are politically active. It is with a party that has gone so far in adopting a sectarian agenda that it has become the political extension of a religious movement. When government becomes the means of carrying out a religious program, it raises obvious questions under the First Amendment.

No Democrat, Dean included, has put the case so clearly. Danforth is not alone. You might recall that former Minnesota Republican Sen. Dave Durenberger expressed similar criticisms in a City Pages interview around the same time. It's no accident that most of the GOP's internal critics spring from the ranks of the retired. But similar views, however closely held, are common in the Republican Party, which is after all the main reason the Democrats "won" the filibuster fight. It came down to GOP moderates who resented the sway of the religious right in the party. Which raises a question. When was the last time Democrats censured a party official for airing a criticism of Republicans that happened also to be the single most prominent complaint inside GOP party circles?

This latest round of Dean-whacking by Democrats commenced in earnest just over a month ago, after he told a convention of Massachusetts Democrats that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay "ought to go back to Houston, where he can serve his jail sentence down there courtesy of the Texas taxpayers." The crowd liked it; the suits did not. They began popping up to ask where, where, where was Dean's sense of decency? Barney Frank told the Boston Globe, "That's just wrong. I think Howard Dean was out of line talking about DeLay. The man has not been indicted." No. DeLay, let's remember, has only been accused of a boggling assortment of ethics violations including but not limited to: raising and laundering illegal campaign donations to a home-state PAC, Texans for a Republican Majority; funneling half a million dollars in campaign funds to his wife and daughter; and leading a House Ethics Committee putsch to remove any Republican members willing to seriously examine the charges against him. So let us say that Dean might have been wise to employ a conditional verb tense in connecting DeLay to talk of jail sentences. Beyond that, it was straight hardball rhetoric of a sort Americans have grown unaccustomed to hearing from Democrats. But the party establishment has no taste for indulging the sort of political hyperbole routinely used by Republicans against it, even when popular sentiment is on the Democrats' side. The Democrats may have let themselves be painted into a corner on gay marriage, but they mean to remain the straight man in our political comedy.

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