- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

Democrats sharply criticized Howard Dean yesterday for secret energy policy meetings he held as governor of Vermont, saying the secrecy of them further erodes Mr. Dean’s ability to mount a viable challenge to President Bush next year.

“Americans are left wondering what’s Dean hiding,” said Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who trails Mr. Dean in most polls for the Democratic nomination.

“Under the Bush administration, the corporate-welfare energy bill was drafted in secret with the help of big oil and other special interests. I don’t think the American people want to go down this road again,” Mr. Kerry said.

Like all of the Democratic nominees, Mr. Dean in the past has been sharply critical of the Bush administration — in particular Vice President Dick Cheney — for the secret meetings convened while drafting a national energy policy.

Earlier this year, Mr. Dean accused Mr. Cheney of refusing to divulge details of his energy meetings in an effort to conceal an undue influence energy industry officials such as then- Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay had in creating the policy.

“The administration should also level with the American people about just how much influence Ken Lay and his industry buddies had over the development of the president’s energy policy by releasing notes on the deliberations of Vice President Cheney’s energy task force,” Mr. Dean said on Sept. 15.

The revelations about Mr. Dean’s own secret energy task force meetings, first reported this week by the Associated Press, energized Democratic challengers who have watched Mr. Dean surge past them from an unknown antiwar crusader to the best-funded, most-popular Democrat in the field.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut said, “We just found out that before Dick Cheney ever did it, Howard Dean tried to hide his secret energy task force records.”

In a rare display of partisan unity, the Republican National Committee (RNC) agreed with many of the Democrats running for the nomination, accusing Mr. Dean of “hypocrisy.”

“This is another example of a Democrat so bent on attacking the president for political gain that he’s not even making an effort to sound consistent or reasonable,” RNC spokeswoman Heather Layman said. “It’s kind of attack first, think later.”

The news of Mr. Dean’s meetings comes after similarly harsh attacks from fellow Democrats over a series of recent gaffes and other issues, including Mr. Dean’s refusal to release 146 boxes of his gubernatorial papers.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri issued a press release purporting to be Mr. Bush’s Christmas wish list to Santa Claus, asking only that Mr. Dean become the Democratic nominee next year.

“Santa, this really is too good to be true, but Howard Dean gave tax breaks to my old pals at Enron — Kenny Boy and Company,” “Mr. Bush” tells Santa Claus in the Gephardt press release. “And, he won’t open his secret Vermont files. This guy has more secrets than Dick Cheney.”

Mr. Dean said it was necessary to keep his task force’s deliberations private because the group reviewed proprietary financial data from utility companies — one of the reasons given by the Bush administration for closing its meetings.

“Any comparison between my successful bipartisan efforts to solve an energy crisis in Vermont and Dick Cheney’s donor-rewards program disguised as a national energy policy is laughable,” Mr. Dean said in a press release issued yesterday.

The number of attacks from within his own party prompted Mr. Dean to lash out at Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe.

“If we had strong leadership in the Democratic Party, it would be calling the other candidates and saying somebody has to win here,” Mr. Dean told the New York Times earlier this week. “If [former head] Ron Brown were chairman, this wouldn’t be happening.”

Democratic strategist James Carville, co-hosting CNN’s “Crossfire” program yesterday, wondered aloud whether the attack on Mr. McAuliffe and other recent missteps proved that Mr. Dean had undergone a “political lobotomy.”

Mr. Lieberman responded to those Dean remarks in a conference call yesterday with reporters.

“Throughout this year, Howard Dean has repeatedly attacked other Democratic candidates,” Mr. Lieberman said. “But when recently challenged on his own policies, misstatements and retractions, Dean responded by complaining to the party chairman that we’re being mean to him.”

He also warned that a matchup next year between Mr. Dean and Mr. Bush could go badly for Democrats.

“I’ve got news for Howard Dean: The primaries are a warm-up compared to what George Bush and [political adviser] Karl Rove have waiting for the Democratic nominee,” Mr. Lieberman said. “If Howard Dean can’t stand the heat in the Democratic kitchen, he’s going to melt in a minute once the Republicans start going after him.”

Drawing even more animosity from his party, Mr. Dean warned his rivals Sunday that his 1.5 million supporters might just stay home if he doesn’t get the nomination.

“I don’t know where they’re going to go,” Mr. Dean said while campaigning in Iowa. “They’re certainly not going to vote for a conventional Washington politician.”

Bob Kunst, who is president of HillaryNow.com and wants to draft Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York to snatch the nomination away from Mr. Dean, accused Mr Dean of “threatening Democrats that he’ll take his marbles and run, along with his 1.5 million voters, if he doesn’t get the nomination.”

“Has the left completely lost its mind to vote for this waffler and crybaby?” Mr. Kunst wondered. “Are they so determined to destroy what’s left of the Democrats and give the election back to Bush?”

Bill Sammon contributed to this report.

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