- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2005

It says something about the state of American politics today when the No. 1 topic in D.C. is former Gov. Howard Dean’s personal attacks on the Republican Party.

It’s hardly news when a Democratic National Committee chairman attacks the GOP. That’s what the loyal opposition should be doing. It is news when leading Democrats criticize him, in some cases sharply, for what he is saying and how he says it, and it’s even bigger news when complaints about his invective rhetoric come from the party’s grassroots.

The truth is many Democrats are uncomfortable with Mr. Dean’s all-out attack style, and have said so. Some openly suggest the Vermont liberal is becoming a political liability.

I’ve been talking to Democratic state chairmen around the country and several told me, some on background, that they’ve been getting complaints from grassroots activists who think Mr. Dean’s fiery rhetoric turns off the very swing voters they will need to rebuild the party.

Notably, the complaints appear strongest in the Republican red states that are the focus of Mr. Dean’s party-rebuilding efforts.

“Yeah, I’ve gotten calls from people who want to know if there is something I can do to talk to him to be a little more gentle with our Republican friends,” says Larry Gates, the Democratic chairman in Kansas, one of Mr. Dean’s target states.

“I don’t want to get into name-calling,” Mr. Gates says. “We are outnumbered here 2-1 and we don’t win elections unless Republicans find our candidates more attractive than their candidates.”

Surprisingly, Mr. Gates says he agrees with Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who said of Mr. Dean’s attacks, “I’m not sure if the best way to win support in the red states is to insult the folks who live there.”

“If Howard Dean were to call and ask for my advice, I would tell him that,” Mr. Gates says. “Stick to the Democratic message, which he articulates so well.”

Who’s complaining? “The calls are coming from activists, people who feel his remarks were kind of counterproductive and wanted to know where to call him or e-mail,” Mr. Gates says.

Idaho Democratic chairman Richard Stallings told me he has received similar complaints. “I’ve had calls from people who are offended by his remarks. People say it’s a little strong.”

Said a Southwestern Democratic chairman, who spoke on background, “Let’s just say I wouldn’t have said what he said, or the way he said it.”

What has everyone riled are remarks that seemed so virulent they got the nightly news shows’ attention and put Mr. Dean, who was avoiding the national spotlight, on the defensive.

Among them: House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who has not been charged with any crime, should go back to Texas “where he can serve his jail sentence,” a lot of Republicans “have never made an honest living in their lives,” and the GOP is “pretty much a white Christian party.”

“I think the ‘white Christian party’ remark was over the top,” Mr. Stallings told me.

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who showed the Democrats how to win in a heavily Republican state and could run for president in 2008, doesn’t like the attacks either. Mr. Dean is not using “the kind of tone a lot of Democratic governors in mostly Republican states are using to get elected or to govern,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

Perhaps the sharpest criticism came from Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee, a popular Democrat who plans a Senate run next year. He warned if Mr. Dean did not “temper his comments, it may get to the point where the party may need to look elsewhere for leadership, because he does not speak for me.”

Congressional Democratic leaders rushed to Mr. Dean’s defense last week, but former DNC officials say privately his tenure so far is disappointing. The RNC is out-fund-raising him better than 2-to-1 and the uproar over his intemperate remarks is drowning out the party’s message — that is, if it has one.

When the late Ron Brown held the party’s chairmanship in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he focused on bread-and-butter economic issues and kept up a drumbeat of criticism of the GOP that helped put his party back in the White House. But back then, Mr. Brown was talking about substantive ideas, like cutting the Social Security tax to help lower-income workers.

Mr. Dean’s style reflects the party’s worst weakness: It’s all attack and no proposals. He should take a page out of Mr. Brown’s playbook and get into the game off ideas and issues. That’s what Democrats out in the party’s grass roots tell me they want to hear from their party chairman.

But is Howard Dean listening to them?

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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