Democratic presidential contenders have unleashed a sudden “swarm offense” on frontrunner Howard Dean. After attacks on Dean by Sen. Joe Lieberman, Sen. John Kerry and Sen. John Edwards earlier in the week, Rep. Dick Gephardt on Friday accused Dean of supporting Medicare cuts in 1995. And then, adding insult to obloquy, Gephardt compared Dean to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, one of the Republicans most-despised by Democrats.
In December 1995, Dean, then Vermont governor, advocated making the Medicare insurance program for people over age 65 a wholly managed care program, saying savings from the switch could be used to help Medicare recipients pay for prescription drugs.
Traditionally Medicare has been a fee-for-service plan under which beneficiaries go to the doctor of their choice, with much of the cost covered by the taxpayers.
“Howard Dean actually agreed with the Gingrich Republicans,” Gephardt said in a speech to a Teamsters local in Des Moines, Iowa. “Howard Dean, as chairman of the National Governors Association, was supporting Republican efforts to scale back Medicare,” he charged.
In a conference call with reporters after the speech in which he slammed Dean, Gephardt insisted, “this is not an attack, this is a legitimate difference on policy.”
Gephardt also said criticizing Dean did not amount to a change in direction for his campaign, but in the presidential debates held to this point Gephardt has conspicuously refrained from singling out Dean by name for criticism.
Dean’s campaign quickly issued a statement in which the former Vermont governor said he was “deeply saddened” that Gephardt had “chosen to resort to the politics of the past by engaging in name-calling, guilt by association and scare tactics. It is a sad day for Dick Gephardt when he compares ANY Democratic candidate running for President to Newt Gingrich and his divisive policies. No Democrat in the presidential race bears any resemblance to Newt Gingrich on any major issue. And for Dick Gephardt to suggest otherwise is simply beyond the pale.”
Dean found himself under fire on another front Friday as Kerry skewered him for calling members of the Palestinian Hamas group “soldiers.”
In an interview on CNN Wednesday, Dean said, “there is a war going on in the Middle East, and members of Hamas are soldiers in that war, and, therefore ... they are going to be casualties if they are going to make war.”
Kerry said, “Dean insults the memory of every innocent man, woman, and child killed by these suicidal murderers. Hamas militants are not soldiers in a war — they are terrorists who need to be stopped.”
CLARK WAITS IN THE WINGS
The attacks on Dean come at a time when all nine Democratic contenders may be overshadowed by a dramatic late entrant into the race, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who could announce his candidacy as early as Monday.
Over the past six months, Dean has surged from a dark-horse maverick candidate to the frontrunner in the race, leading polls in the two earliest states where Democrats will cast their votes, Iowa and New Hampshire.
At a debate Tuesday night sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman accused Dean of turning his back on Israel after Dean said “it’s not our place to take sides” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dean fired back at Lieberman, saying he was “demagoguing” the issue.
Last week, Lieberman said a “Dean Depression” would occur if Dean required all international trade accords to adhere to U.S. standards on labor rights and environmental rules.
Also seeking to knock Dean’s candidacy off track this week were Edwards, who took Dean to task for claiming that he is the only candidate to talk about the topic of race in front of all-white audiences. And Kerry assailed Dean for suggesting for that he might opt out of federal campaign spending limits in the primary season. Dean’s campaign said it was far from making a decision on opting out of the taxpayer-financing system, which awards matching funds in return for abiding by spending limits. Dean said last March he would abide by the system.