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Gagging Dr. Dean

Jay Bevenour

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.  

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.

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.

 

Ideologically, Dean makes a curious vessel for the party establishment's wrath. As he told a very liberal-friendly ACLU crowd in Minneapolis two months ago, he is "not that liberal" himself. In fiscal terms he is a balance-the-budget guy, like Bill Clinton, who in turn described himself thusly, in Bob Woodward's The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House: "I hope you're all aware we're all Eisenhower Republicans. We're Eisenhower Republicans here, and we are fighting the Reagan Republicans. We stand for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market." Dean talks about social programs, mainly health care, but of course a Democratic Party that followed his lead would be mightily constrained in funding social programs by its budget-balancing creed. In sum, Dean is a little more liberal on domestic issues than Clinton, a little less liberal than Richard Nixon. Now that he has quit speaking up against the war (We cannot leave Iraq, he says at every stop), there is little to make him unpalatable to frontline Democrats on issues of policy.

Two things make Democratic Party powers lose sleep over Dean. The first and less distinct is his taste for the populist rhetorical style. He has a flair for articulating popular anger in popular terms, and he is very good at seeing where to strike. It doesn't matter much that he is sometimes inarticulate or in less than full command of his factual claims for the same reason it hasn't mattered in the far more egregious case of George W. Bush: Rank-and-file Democrats and independents who see Dean tend to like him. The unprecedented war chest he amassed from nickel-and-dime donors before the Iowa Massacre is ample proof of it. And this brings us to the more material reason the Democrats hate Howard Dean: He threatens to refigure the fundraising base of the party, however modestly, and thus to shift the balance of power in the party hierarchy.

This is unacceptable. But to see why, you first have to set aside one of the great American civics-class myths, which is that the first mission of political parties is to win elections. In his posthumously released 1993 book Indispensable Enemies, the late critic and political historian Walter Karp expressed the rule thus: "Insofar as a...party is controlled at all, the sole abiding purpose, the sole overriding interest of those who control it, is to maintain that control. This, not election victory, is the fundamental and unswerving principle of party politics in America." One might say that winning elections is the lifeblood of a party, and past a certain point the party collapses if it does not keep a sufficient share of power and patronage. But job one is to assure the survival of the prevailing cast of characters--the officers, powerbrokers, and, now more than ever, the main funders of the party apparatus. This observation is based on the hardly radical idea that people in power tend not to surrender that power without a fight.  

Karp goes on to spell out some of the measures that holding on to power entails:

Party organizations are neither malevolent nor benevolent; they are self-interested.... In holding elected officials accountable to them, they will see to it that no laws are passed which might weaken the [party] organization; that no public issues are raised which might strengthen the chance of insurgents and independents; that special privileges are not stripped away from special interests that have been paying the organization heavily for protecting those privileges. They use their power continually to maintain their control over patronage, over campaign funds, over nominations, over the avenues to public renown, over the whole arsenal of political rewards and punishments without which the organization would collapse in a trice....

The grassroots political activity of the citizenry and its inseparable adjunct, the entry into public life of non-organization politicians, is a constant threat to party organizations. It spurs political ambitions outside their control. It opens new avenues to public renown. It encourages outsiders to enter party primaries and gives them a chance to win. It opens to officeholders themselves the opportunity to win public support on their own and thus render themselves independent of the organization. It is therefore the perpetual endeavor of party organizations to discourage and even squash grassroots movements.

Beneath the mass media dustup over Dean's rhetoric, there is a related and more telling battle going on over precisely the issue of grassroots fundraising. Dean wants to use the same fundraising strategy as party chair that he used as a candidate, emphasizing small donations collected over the internet and through state and local efforts coordinated via the internet. Through the end of April, the Democrats had raised a little over $18 million. The Republicans had raised almost $43 million. Critics seized on the discrepancy as proof Dean could not deliver. This fails to consider the position in which Democrats found themselves relative to Republicans after the last election ("The Republicans control pretty much everything," notes Democratic political consultant Steve Cobble, "so why wouldn't they have a huge edge in fundraising?"), and it likewise ignores the fact that Dean has raised more money than his predecessor had at the same point following the 2000 election, when the party could still receive direct soft-money donations. Judged against those two factors, Dean's performance as a fundraiser would seem pretty respectable.

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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