- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2005

Howard Dean celebrated his first hundred days as chairman of the Democratic National Committee last week with an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Despite the former governor’s brief sojourn from Washington politics, host Tim Russert was not for want of material.

Since assuming the chairmanship, Mr. Dean has been carrying his fire-and-brimstone manner to the hinterlands of the nation, rallying the Democratic faithful with mostly unreported quips like “I think Tom DeLay ought to go back to Houston, where he can serve his jail sentence.” It’s a style that served him well in the early months of the Democratic primaries, but will it pay off in Mr. Dean’s first test as party chairman — the 2006 midterm elections? As the doctor himself might say, the prognosis does not look good.

National chairmen have two roles — raise money and raise more money. We’ll be returning to the issue of fund raising in a later editorial, but for now it’s important to note that the Republican National Committee has clobbered the DNC. According to figures cited by columnist Robert Novak, so far this year the RNC has raised $34.2 million compared to the DNC’s $16.7 million. This reflects poorly on Mr. Dean, who convinced skeptical party leaders that he would bring the same grass-roots fund-raising abilities to the DNC that he displayed in his failed presidential campaign. It hasn’t happened.

After the money, the next thing chairmen are responsible for is the party message. Mr. Dean’s predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, was a master of staying on message. It took a chairman like Mr. McAuliffe to make sense of Sen. John Kerry’s garbled campaign rhetoric to sell in front of national television audiences. But sometimes it seems as if Mr. Dean hasn’t even bothered to consult with his congressional colleagues when he takes to the stump. For instance, he betrayed the party line in February when he said that Social Security benefits 30 years from now will be 80 percent of what they are now. Congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid must have been shocked to hear that one. He did it again last month when he responded to a question on Congress’ intervention into the Terri Schiavo case: “We’re going to use Terri Schiavo later on,” he said. Turning Mrs. Schiavo into a political tool was exactly what congressional Democrats accused Republicans of doing. This is hardly the “message discipline” Mr. Dean has urged Democrats to follow.

Ironically, this instinct to express his mind on occasion can be refreshing. His abortion stance, for instance, while not pro-life, is basically centrist. But what makes a good politician isn’t necessarily what makes a good party chairman. Mr. Dean no longer has the freedom to be the gadfly; he is the face of the Democratic Party.

Then of course there are the Deanisms — the red meat he throws to the base, but probably does little to expand it. “I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for”; “this is a struggle between good and evil, and we’re the good”; Republicans are “brain dead”; and “You think the Republican National Committee could get this many people of color in a single room? Only if they had the hotel staff in here.” For comparison, try to remember anything RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman has said in the last four months.

Misgivings about Mr. Dean’s wayward tongue were well placed late last year when party leaders looked in vain for an alternative candidate. After he won, some expressed the naive hope that they would be able to muzzle their new chairman and keep him on a short leash. According to Mr. Novak, Mr. Reid and Mrs. Pelosi privately urged the chairman to restrain his rhetoric and focus on his goals, like reviving state operations. That’s difficult when Democratic governors and lawmakers conveniently disappear whenever Mr. Dean drops in for a visit.

The Democratic Party needed a good jolt of energy following Mr. Kerry’s loss last year, and Mr. Dean seems quite capable of providing it. But the party’s problems go deeper than emotional reassurance. Republicans are slowly whittling away at once reliable Democratic voting blocs — blacks and Hispanics — and their control of the South is complete. To reverse these trends, Mr. Dean will have to do a little more than play judge and jury for Mr. DeLay.

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