Dean Taking Message to Hill

Aims to Calm Democrats’ Fears

Posted June 7, 2005 at 6:42pm

Despite lingering criticisms of his tendency toward sharp off-the-cuff remarks, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean will have a chance later this week to rally Congressional Democrats to his corner.

Dean will be the featured guest Thursday at the weekly Senate meeting of the Democratic Policy Committee, where he’ll have a chance to rebut some of his critics in the face of a controversy regarding comments he made about the work habits of GOP leaders.

But Dean continued to get mixed reviews early this week from Congressional Democrats. Many Democrats are supportive of his efforts to build a national grass-roots party infrastructure, even in the reddest of the so-called red states, but some remain wary of his ability to say things that could scare off voters in those same states.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday became the latest Democratic leader to publicly distance himself from Dean, echoing remarks from the weekend by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.). Hoyer also told reporters that Dean, while DNC chairman, is not the chief spokesman for the Democratic Party.

“I don’t agree with those comments, and I share the view expressed by Edwards: I don’t think they express the views of our party,” Hoyer said.

Hoyer added that he also believes that “upon reflection” they probably don’t represent Dean’s views either: “I think they were overstated.”

Dean made his remarks last week, saying, “a lot of [Republicans] have never made an honest living in their lives.” The chairman and one-time presidential hopeful himself later clarified his comments by saying he was talking about Republican leaders, not members of the party as a whole.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also shares some of Hoyer’s views, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Crider. “Leader Pelosi doesn’t agree with the comments,” Crider said, but she added that Pelosi believes Dean is “a phenomenal organizer and has done a great job energizing the party around the country.”

One of the party’s leading centrists, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), said Dean doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to off-hand remarks because of his high-profile presidential campaign and its demise in Iowa after his now-infamous scream.

“Most of us are fortunate enough not to have every utterance put under a microscope,” said Carper. “Gov. Dean, unfortunately for him, does not enjoy that privilege.”

“Everything he says is going to be put under the microscope, put up on a billboard. He’s got to know that.”

Republicans continue to revel in the idea that Dean is leading the Democrats, believing he represents the far left of the party. “I think the Democrats made a great choice in Howard Dean, and I’m pulling for him to survive a long time,” Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, tongue firmly in cheek.

But many Democrats say this latest episode has been blown out of proportion and that they look forward to Dean’s stewardship of the party committee.

“What he said was taken out of context,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), the Policy Committee chairman who will host Dean at the meeting of the 45-Senator caucus Thursday. “Howard’s doing a good job. We want to work in tandem with the DNC. The DNC is an important part of our effort to retake the Congress.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said she was looking forward to querying Dean Thursday about “what his strategy is going to be to appeal to the Southern base,” where Democrats have been routed in the past three elections.

And Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Dean has worked well with his committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, accusing GOP leaders of saying far more controversial things. “They have said many harsher things about Democrats — look at Max Cleland,” Schumer said of the 2002 Senate campaign in Georgia.

“I think he’s done a good job,” Schumer said of Dean.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), Dean’s sharpest critic among the Democratic candidates for the 2004 presidential nomination, said Dean doesn’t get a fair shake from Republicans and the media, pointing out that the most recent DNC chairman said more outlandish things than Dean.

“Terry McAuliffe used to say very strong things,” Lieberman said.

But, Lieberman added, it’s critical for Dean to focus on broadening his appeal to the entire party. “He’s got to be unifying and positive,” he said.

Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee, and Biden, both possible 2008 presidential aspirants, jumped on Dean for his remarks over the weekend. Edwards insisted Dean is not the spokesman for the party, while Biden said his comments do not mirror the sentiments of Democrats.

Dean has also gotten into hot water with his Democratic colleagues in recent weeks for publicly saying that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), embroiled in ethical troubles, should return to his home state to serve jail time.

Hoyer, who didn’t support Dean’s candidacy for the DNC position and instead favored former Rep. Martin Frost (Texas), added that “it’s too early to rate him overall” as the chairman. But he was quick to add that Dean is not the spokesman for Democrats. Rather he, Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other elected Congressional leaders are the party’s voice, Hoyer insisted.

The most recent dust up over Dean comes as no surprise to Democratic insiders who say it was only a matter of time before the outspoken and blunt former governor’s statements caused some trouble for the party.

“In Democratic circles, everyone feels this is a massive distraction, and it’s hugely unhelpful,” said one well-placed Congressional Democratic source. “It’s not about Howard Dean. With everything going for us, any moment spent cleaning up his message is an incredible waste of time.”

But Dean hasn’t scared off folks like Landrieu, who said at this point she’s not afraid to have Dean campaign for her in the Bayou State.

“I would have no hesitancy with the chairman of the party coming in,” she said. “I don’t bring in a lot of people from outside, but of course he would be welcome.”