In yesterday’s edition of the Hill is a story detailing apparent tensions between some Members of Congress and Democratic Chair Howard Dean. At issue are recent comments by the Governor on what should be done about Social Security and Iraq. Some Hill staff and Members grouse that by wading into the policy arena, Dean has broken a commitment to avoid talk about issues in favor of focusing on money and party building.
Said one unnamed aide, “There were serious concerns when Gov. Dean took over that he understand what his role was and what it wasn’t. There were meetings with the congressional leadership and Mr. Dean where it was discussed and the governor implied that he understood what his role was and was not, that he was the mechanical part of the party, not the standard bearer or message person. Subsequently, there have been episodes that have been concerning.”
In the spirit of full disclosure, I worked for Governor Dean’s bid for the White House and have a lot of warm memories of that campaign (as well as an ulcer that I take medication for, to be fair). However, I tried to read this story objectively.
The record of the party in the 2006 elections will make or break Dean’s chairmanship. Should the Democrats not make a competitive showing, it will give his opponents in the party establishment the rope they need to hang him. The Governor knows this. He has done an incredible amount of work to get the party infrastructure and grassroots networking close to where it needs to be for the party machine to be fully effective. In less than a year, he’s done what no other chairman thought of doing – placing a handful of staffers in every state in the country. His record of fundraising is better than most party chairmen have done at this point after a presidential election – no small feat considering how tapped-out donors were from the Kerry campaign.
What the party lacks now is a coherent and detailed message on key issues, and the Governor knows this.
His low point as chairman, to me, was his appearance on Meet the Press a few weeks ago, particularly this exchange:
DR. DEAN: We have an alternative agenda. We made it very clear. We want a strong national security based on telling the truth to our people at home, our soldiers and our allies. We want jobs in America that'll stay in America, and we believe that renewable energy is one of the areas where we can do that. We want a health-care system that covers everybody, just like 36 other countries in the world. We want a strong public education system. And most of all, we want honesty back in government. I think that's a pretty good agenda.
MR. RUSSERT: But those are words that will appeal to people. But when you go behind them, for example, what is the Democratic position on Iraq? Should we withdraw troops now? What do the Democrats stand for?
DR. DEAN: Tim, first of all, we don't control the House, the Senate or the White House. We have plenty of time to show Americans what our agenda is and we will long before the '06 elections.
He went on to admit, when pressed, that the party didn’t have specifics yet. Knowing the Governor, my feeling is that his gut was probably churning having to say something like this. During the campaign, and during his tenure as Governor, it was his staple to not bring up a problem and pin it on someone, unless he had a plan on how to do better. It’s the hallmark of any good candidate or party. Howard Dean looks at Ken Mehlman being able to rattle off the Republican position on issues, and knows his party looks weak in comparison in regards to detailed plans and positions it can provide. He knows plans, not platitudes, no matter how right or wrong, are what attract voters.
And so, with a party still fractious and arguing over what positive agenda to adopt as a position on Iraq, Social Security, ethics and a host of other issues, Howard Dean began to lay out some plans. On Social Security, he said he favored raising the cap protecting salaries of over $90,000 from being taxed. On Iraq, he began to support the notion that there should be a phased redeployment, sooner rather than later. Are they perfect plans? Maybe not. But the point was, finally, a lead Democrat was offering a positive agenda.
If Democrats on the Hill are upset, all they need do is look in the mirror. If there wasn’t an enormous and obvious gap in positive and forward-thinking messaging, there would be no void for the Governor to fill. The added benefit would be that voters might actually start to find more appeal in the party. Yes, even as disastrous as the GOP has been, voters still are not preferring Democrats at the level they should be.
In response to the Governor’s statements, Congressman Earl Pomeroy told a reporter that Dean should “shut up.” My advice to Pomeroy and other Democrats who really want to see the Governor walk in lock step is all to themselves shut up and lock themselves in a room for however how long it takes to come up with a positive, detailed, and unified agenda. Until they do so, I expect that the Governor will continue to speak.