THE BLOG

Fire Robert Gibbs...Or At Least Make Him Apologize to Howard Dean

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Either Presidential Press Secretary Robert Gibbs went off the reservation and was not speaking for President Obama when he attacked Howard Dean's character and sanity for daring to criticize the Senate health "reform" bill which Obama wants passed; or more frighteningly, Gibbs was speaking for President Obama.

If Gibbs wasn't speaking for Obama, Gibbs should be fired, or at least called on the carpet by Obama and ordered to apologize publicly to Gov. Dean -- Gibbs went a long way towards alienating millions of people in the Democratic base who helped elect President Obama and who agree with Gov. Dean that a mandate to buy private insurance without, at a minimum, competition from a robust public option is bad policy and bad politics.

If however, Gibbs was speaking for President Obama, it appears that the White House has concluded it doesn't care about Obama's own base. In that case Obama's campaign promises for meaningful change are increasingly a pipe dream and Democratic prospects in the 2010 Congressional elections, and even in Obama's 2012 reelection campaign, are even more worrisome than it has seemed.

Whatever you think of Gov. Dean, he speaks for many Democratic voters and activists in his criticisms of the Senate bill. His critique of the Senate health care bill in the past few days on television and in an Op-Ed piece in The Washington Post is cogent and rational, whether you agree with it or not. Moreover, his pioneering use of the internet in his 2004 Presidential primary campaign, and his 50-state strategy as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, did much to lay the basis for Obama's victory in previously red states and for Democratic gains in the Congress in 2006 and 2008. Obama owes him a debt of gratitude.

When asked about criticism of the Senate health care bill, Gibbs could easily have said that President Obama respects Gov. Dean and is grateful for his efforts to build the Democratic Party and his work for health care reform, but respectfully disagrees with Gov. Dean on the Senate bill. Instead, Gibbs chose to attack Dean's mental stability, character, and knowledge of the issue, suggesting that Dean was irrational and didn't understand the bill. "I don't think any rational person would say killing the bill makes a whole lot of sense," said Gibbs, both questioning Dean's sanity, as well as mischaracterizing Deans position, which is not to kill the bill but to use reconciliation to pass the good parts of the bill instead of caving into Joe Lieberman--whom the White House has never publicly criticized.

Increasingly, the Obama administration seems to think it can throw the concerns of its base supporters overboard and rely on Rahm Emanuel's version of Karl Rove's "K Street strategy" to buy elections with hefty campaign contributions from insurance companies, drug companies, and Wall Street. That's a prescription for failure.

Money certainly matters in politics, but you also can't win if you alienate your own strongest supporters. If the base--what Dean once called "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party"-- is unmotivated to campaign for Democrats because it feels disrespected and because campaign promises of fundamental change have been thrown overboard, and if many base Democratic voters don't bother to vote, Democrats will be devastated in the 2010 midterms, and Obama will have to try to govern either with a smaller majority, or even a minority, in Congress.

Obama needs to start mending fences with his base, not further alienating it. A good way to start is either to fire Gibbs for his attacks on the base and one of its important spokesman, Gov. Dean, or make Gibbs publicly apologize.

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UPDATE: It's now becoming clear that Gibb's attempt to label Gov. Dean as irrational was no mistatement but part of an organized Obama administration attempt tlo attack Dean's character and mental stability. On television Thursday, David Axelrod again mischaracterized Dean's position as wanting to kill health care reform and called it "insane".

The Obama administration's personal attack on people who criticize it on health care is starting to look uncomforably like the Bush administration's personal attack on people who criticized his Iraq policy, only this time, it's people in the President's own party whose character is under attack. Howard Dean should be glad his wife doesn't work for the CIA or she might be outed.

This is starting to look like a concerted White House strategy to try to intimidate Democrats who disagree with a health care bill with mandates and no public option or medicare buy-in, perhaps to send a message to progressive House Democrats that they better ratify the Senate bill or face the wrath of the White House. For the first time, the Obama administration is playing political hardball, but it's not against Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats but against progressive Democrats who were among Obama's strongest supporters during the election campaign.

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UPDATE #2: The theory that what the White House is really trying to do by attacking Dean's character is to intimidate House progressives into ratifying the Senate bill with mandates and no public opton or Medicare buy-in is gaining increasing credibility. The Hill is reporting today that Obama told long-time progressive Oregon Congressman Pete DeFazio, "Don't think we're not keeping score, brother" at a recent closed door meeting of the House Democratic caucus. DeFazio is one of nearly 60 members of the House progressive caucus who signed a letter to the President this summer stating they would not vote for a bill that does not contain a robust public option. DeFazio also recently called for the resignation of Treasury Secretary Geithner and chief White House economist Larry Summers. So it's looking like the White House approach is softball for Blue Dogs like Lieberman, Landrieu, and Lincoln, and hardball for progressive Democrats like DeFazio and Dean. Is this the beginning of Obama's version of Clinton-era triangulation?