Friday, June 10, 2005

The No. 2 Democrat in the Senate yesterday blamed “the right wing” and elements of the press “in service to it” for repeating Howard Dean’s remarks about Republicans and inflating them out of proportion.

“I think we all understand what’s happening with you all,” said Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, in remarks echoing Hillary Rodham Clinton’s blaming a “vast right-wing conspiracy” for her husband’s legal-ethical woes.

“The right wing has got the agenda moving. Fox [News Channel] and everybody’s got the agenda. It’s all about Howard Dean. You’ve bought into it,” Mr. Durbin said.

“You can’t let up on it. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”

Mr. Dean, who took over as chairman of the Democratic National Committee four months ago, has caused a stir with a string of public statements that he “hates the Republican Party and everything it stands for” and that its members are “liars,” “evil,” “corrupt” and “brain-dead.”

Senate Democrats emerged from a Capitol Hill meeting with Mr. Dean, a former Vermont governor, yesterday touting their message of the day: Change the subject.

“As all of you know, there isn’t a single person, whether it’s any of us in this room or Governor Dean or [Republican National Committee chairman Ken] Mehlman, that haven’t misspoken,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said at a photo opportunity with Mr. Dean in his Senate office before that meeting.

“We’re here today to talk about the American people,” he said. “We’re talking about common-sense reforms for the issues that they care about.”

Mr. Dean echoed both Mr. Reid’s and Mr. Durbin’s complaints, telling reporters before the meeting: “We’re not going to let the Republicans set the agenda, and to be quite honest, we aren’t going to let you set the agenda.”

He called the fallout over his comments “a media circus” and “exactly what the Republicans want.”

“The truth is that we need to focus on exactly the issues that Harry Reid just talked about, and we’re going to,” he said.

On the other side of the Capitol, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, sought to distance herself from Mr. Dean’s comments.

“Any one of us at any given time may say something that might not be acceptable to another part of the party,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “I don’t associate myself with what he said. I think that it probably was said in the exuberance of the moment.”

Nearly every high-profile speech that Mr. Dean has delivered in his brief tenure as chairman of the Democratic National Committee has caused a stir.

In February, he told the Congressional Black Caucus that the Republican Party “couldn’t get this many people of color in a single room” unless “they had the hotel staff in here.” And on Monday told a gathering of California journalists that the Republican “party is basically a white, Christian party,” a remark he defended on NBC’s “Today” show Tuesday morning.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, said Republicans are out to “destroy” Mr. Dean, whose comments were “taken out of context.”

“Let’s talk about what we really need to do — to rebuild our party all over the country, which he is committed to do,” Mrs. Boxer said, admitting that Mr. Dean’s statements have put “a burden on all of us to make sure we don’t step on the message we are putting forward.”

“The media wants to have some kind of a controversy, so they don’t give the message of Howard Dean,” she said. “We all know that the other side is bound and determined to hurt Howard Dean and destroy him, as they usually do with leaders of our party.”

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, said members of his own party are talking about Mr. Dean too much and keeping the story alive.

“Members of Congress who sit there and kind of parse it for a week on end don’t help,” Mr. Dodd said. “With all due respect, you don’t hear our friends on the other side engaging in this sort of thing. They’ll get back to the issues that people really care about.”

In the past few days, former Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, Democratic Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer have publicly criticized Mr. Dean’s remarks.

After the luncheon meeting, Mr. Dean moved quickly past reporters waiting for him and wouldn’t answer questions as he made his way across the Capitol and out of the building.

Mrs. Clinton, who polls show as a front-runner for her party’s presidential nomination in 2008, left the luncheon through a door away from reporters yesterday.

Republicans are enjoying the spectacle. “Howard Dean continues to throw some of the most below-the-belt political punches in recent memory,” said House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican. “Leading Democrats tell the American people that they don’t agree with the nasty rhetoric after each Dean cheap shot. John Edwards says Howard Dean is just one voice. Unfortunately for Democrats, Howard Dean is the loudest.”

Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, said: “Last week’s scandal was Deep Throat. This week’s scandal is Dean’s Throat. And, apparently, Dean likes the taste of his own foot.”

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