Gagging Dr. Dean

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

You would never think so to listen to the party regulars. TheHill.com reported on June 7 that three key fundraising coordinators (those overseeing New York, California, and "the grassroots") had quit the party, adding that "Democratic fundraisers say that there is growing concern over what they call Dean's lack of attention to major donors and that donors are much less likely to give money if they don't have sufficient opportunity to meet with the party's leadership." Business Week found donors themselves in a lather. "It appears that the chairman has come to the conclusion that he doesn't need major donors," one said anonymously. "He hasn't made any effort to reach out." Nathan Landow, a Maryland developer who was involved in the express retooling of the Democrats to attract more corporate cash way back in the latter days of Reagan, sounded the same note: "There's a wait-and-see attitude from business and major contributors. This guy has some work to do to get the comfort level up." A Philadelphia real estate magnate and fundraiser, William Batoff, pledged to boycott the DNC as long as Dean is chair.

To suppose that these people are acting in anything like the best interest of the Democratic Party, you must buy the perennial shibboleth that Democrats refuse to tack left because it's a losing strategy. This is ridiculous on its face. If there is one score on which modern Democrats have proven themselves absolutely intrepid, it's losing. They have watched their share in Congress diminish by degree for more than a decade without so much as a serious feint at moving in a different direction. They have followed the curse of Clintonian triangulation-- we're like them, except we care more--even though there is no reason to think Clinton himself would have won the 1992 election with it but for the unique situation posed that year by the Ross Perot wild card. The cannier Republican strategists have recognized for years that a serious, even if modest, program of economic populism would be a winner. Following George Bush I's defeat of Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bush campaign manager (and Karl Rove mentor) Lee Atwater said, "The way to win a presidential election against the Republicans is to develop the class-warfare issue, as Dukakis did at the end. To divide up the have and have-nots." And as I wrote last fall, Minnesota GOP consultant Vin Weber told a conservative think tank crowd on the morning after the election, "The Democrats are going to go through a real soul-searching period. They'll conclude they lost the election because they didn't have a liberal enough candidate."

If you have any doubt as to the viability of a left-populist campaign geared to questions of economic justice, only consider the polls and the economic statistics. A June 10 Gallup survey of faith in public institutions yielded these approval numbers: the presidency, 44 percent; the Supreme Court, 41 percent; newspapers and TV, both 28 percent; Congress, 22 percent; big business, 22 percent; HMOs, 17 percent. Health care bills figure in roughly half of the personal bankruptcies filed in recent years, which is to say that about 2 million Americans a year go broke owing to medical bills. (According to a Harvard study of the subject, about three-quarters of that number have insurance.) The time is ripe for a full-throated attack on corruption in the halls of business and government and especially in our profiteering health care system. Howard Dean sees the political opening at hand. The only part he fails to grasp is how spectacularly distasteful and off-point his big idea is to the Democratic Party.

Dean still possesses enough personal leverage to make himself a real nuisance to business-as-usual Democrats. You will note that most party frontliners have avoided any suggestion that he step down as chair. This is largely because Dean's four-year chairmanship is all that binds him to his brokered promise not to run for president in 2008. The party would rather neutralize him in his role as chair. (Remember, per Newsweek, the scuttled insider plan to appoint a spokesman to stand in front of Dean?) If they can smear him enough to take away whatever lingering mass appeal he has going forward, so much the better. This is where the attacks on his public words come in, and at more than one level. Consultant Cobble again: "Dean knows that when he's out there talking is when the small donors jump in. The big-money people know that too--they know that to keep the fundraising going, he's got to put red meat out there. And they probably also realize that if they can intimidate him into stopping that, he'll be forced to turn back toward them for money."

The grassroots energies that coalesced around Dean are thus put in check, and the vaunted post-2004 battle over "the soul of the Democratic Party" is laid to rest, appropriately, with a chorus of whimpers.

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