Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean yesterday said many Republicans don’t make an “honest living” — the sharpest barb in a campaign-style speech to a conference of liberal activists.
Speaking to the Campaign for America’s Future, Mr. Dean called for easier rules for voting, saying it is difficult for working parents to make it to the polls on time and wait to vote.
“Well, Republicans, I guess, can do that, because a lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives,” Mr. Dean said. “But for ordinary working people, who have to work eight hours a day, they have kids, they got to get home to those kids, the idea of making them stand for eight hours to cast their ballot for democracy is wrong.”
The Democratic National Committee later defended the former Vermont governor’s remarks as a comment on the state of the economy.
“Governor Dean was simply pointing out what everyone already knows: People are working harder for less money thanks to the Bush economy. Republicans clearly don’t understand that,” said DNC spokeswoman Karen Finney.
Mr. Dean’s remarks stand in contrast to a report released Tuesday by Third Way, a centrist Democratic advocacy group, that said Democrats are facing a crisis among middle-class voters and found that Republicans — at both the presidential and congressional levels — have a commanding lead among white middle-class households.
Mr. Dean’s comment was reminiscent of when Teresa Heinz Kerry, during the 2004 presidential campaign, questioned whether first lady Laura Bush had ever worked.
“I don’t know that she’s ever had a real job — I mean, since she’s been grown up,” Mrs. Kerry said of the former school librarian.
Mrs. Kerry, wife of Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, apologized after her remarks appeared in USA Today.
Mr. Dean, a candidate for his party’s 2004 presidential nomination, reprised his campaign theme of reaching out to all voters and said his party must make more of an effort in all 50 states.
“You have seen the last 18-state campaign for the president,” he said.
He also attacked President Bush’s policies across the board, saying he governed by polls and calling his administration “the most ineffective presidency that this country has seen in my lifetime.”
Republican National Committee press secretary Tracey Schmitt said Mr. Dean’s speech was “overflowing with anger” and said the DNC chief’s assertion that Republicans don’t work “makes it clear that Dean’s priority is to generate mudslinging headlines rather than engage in substantive debate.”
And Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, said Republicans have been the defenders of working families.
“The last we checked, Republicans passed family-friendly tax relief, the per-child family tax credit and marriage penalty tax relief that will put more money in the pockets of hard-working Americans,” Mr. Bonjean said.
“We’re disappointed to see this kind of rhetoric,” he said, “and that’s why a majority of American families voted for Republicans in 2004 — because we get the job done, and the Democrats choose to complain and gripe.”
Mr. Dean received the most enthusiastic response at the conference at the Washington Hilton yesterday, where the audience repeatedly interrupted his remarks with applause and cheering.
Former Sen. John Edwards’ lunchtime speech garnered one standing ovation from the crowd. The North Carolina Democrat and 2004 vice-presidential candidate mostly rehashed his campaign theme of “two Americas” — one for the rich and one for the poor.
Some barbs were reserved for Democrats. Liberal commentator Arianna Huffington accused Democratic leaders of sounding too much like Republicans on the subject of Iraq and took aim at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat.
“If you’re not comfortable setting an exit strategy,” Mrs. Huffington said, “please point out someone who is, because American soldiers are dying every day, waiting for someone to set an exit strategy.”
Nathan Burchfiel contributed to this report.