Meeting in Philadelphia to plan strategy for the 2004 elections, members of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council grappled Monday with what one Democratic political consultant here called “their worst nightmare,” the possibility that Howard Dean might win their party’s presidential nomination. DLC activists said that despite Dean’s recent fund-raising successes, his winning the nomination is far from a sure thing.
On the one hand, the message from some in the DLC was that Dean still has time to moderate his rhetoric so as to be palatable to centrist Democrats. On the other hand, some of the 650 DLCers taking part in Monday’s meeting insisted that Dean’s bubble is likely to burst.
DLC member and Wisconsin state legislator Jeff Plale, who is supporting Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut for the nomination, said, “Dean is a novelty.” According to Plale, “Once folks start to really understand Howard Dean, his attraction as a candidate will start to fade. By running so far to the left, he’s positioning himself outside the mainstream.”
DLC’S ROLE AS COUNTERWEIGHT
The DLC is the business-friendly group that helped write Bill Clinton’s platform in 1992. It serves as a counterweight in Democratic politics to labor unions and interest groups such as the NAACP and the National Organization for Women (NOW).
In May, DLC leaders let loose with a full-bore attack on Dean, comparing him to losing Democratic candidates Walter Mondale in 1984 and George McGovern in 1972 and warning that he’d lead to the party to catastrophic defeat.
Interviews with the DLC high command and with DLC rank-and-file members found signs that some centrists want to make peace with Dean, but also considerable antagonism toward the former Vermont governor.
Without identifying any candidate by name, DLC Chairman Sen. Evan Bayh warned, “The Democratic Party is at risk of being taken over by the far left.” Seeming to allude to Dean’s angry anti-Bush campaign trial rhetoric, Bayh said, “We have an important choice to make: Do we want to vent, or do we want to govern?”
DLC member Dan Kogovsek, the county attorney for Pueblo, Colo., was more pointed: “I’m concerned about Howard Dean and the McGovern faction of the party nominating our next candidate.”
Dean’s vehement opposition to the Iraq war is the primary problem for many DLCers. “All of us here reached the conclusion … that action had to be taken to enforce the U.N. resolutions against Iraq,” Kogovsek said. “Howard Dean is pandering to the left to get the nomination. That did not work in 1984, it did not work in 1988 and it is not going to work in 2004.”
If Dean does win the nomination, Kogovsek said, “we’d support him, but I’m afraid the outcome would be the same as with McGovern, Mondale, and (Michael) Dukakis (in 1988).”
Referring to the fact that Dean borrowed the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s line about representing “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” Kogovsek said, “Paul Wellstone was a wonderful human being, but Paul Wellstone could not win a national race.”
DLC pollster Mark Penn, reporting on a new survey of 1,225 likely 2004 voters, said Democrats have a worrisome problem among married men, where Democrats are now 16 percentage points behind the Republicans in a generic “which party would you vote for?” question.
The Democrats, Penn told reporters Monday, have an especially acute shortfall on the national security issue. Among married voters with children, Democrats are 41 percentage points behind Republicans when voters are asked, “Who does a better job on this issue?”
Given these vulnerabilities, DLC leaders say, it is crucial the party not nominate someone who can be painted as “antiwar” and “weak on defense.”
In recent weeks, Dean himself has sounded magnanimous toward the DLC, saying he doesn’t agree with DLC foes such as Rev. Al Sharpton.
“I don’t agree with the DLC,” Dean said two weeks ago. “But we’re going to need them just like we’re going to need NOW, just like we’re going to need the labor unions, just like we’re going to need the African-American community.… We need everybody.”
DLC President Bruce Reed, who co-authored the anti-Dean May memo, said Monday, “We (Democrats) can’t say one thing in the primaries and say something else again in the general. We want all these candidates to understand that … the kind of campaign they run now is the kind of campaign they’re going to have to live with for the next 16 months.”
Reed sounded of two minds about Dean in an interview with MSNBC.com. “This is not about the DLC and Howard Dean. He has said critical things about us — at one point he said that he didn’t see any DLC staffers in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11” — a reference to the DLC not being a union group, as police and firefighters unions are. “We’re grateful that he defended us to Al Sharpton,” Reed said. “We’re not looking to have this become personal.”
But it may already be too late: With their May blast, Reed and DLC founder Al From attacked Dean by name, making it very personal.
The Democratic contenders who are using DLC ideas and rhetoric are Lieberman, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. The favorite for a good many DLC members would be Lieberman.
SOME PRAISE FOR DEAN
But some DLC activists praised Dean and implied that they could live with him if he were the nominee.
“There’s a lot of what Howard Dean is saying that I agree with,” said DLC member and Ohio Senate candidate Eric Fingerhut, who is uncommitted in the presidential fray. “His health care proposals are excellent. … I also appreciate his approach to budget balancing, which I think is a critical component of what got Democrats elected in the 1990s.”
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell also had warm words for Dean, saying, “I have a great deal of respect for Gov. Dean. He was an enormously successful governor.” Rendell also said that on defense Dean has made “strong statements” about the need to beef up U.S. forces. “You can be against a particular war and still be strong on national security.”
“The main theme of the next election is going to be national security,” said Chris Kofinis, a political consultant who attended the DLC gathering and is advising the campaign to draft retired Gen. Wesley Clark as the Democratic candidate.
Dean, he said, “is in a difficult spot. He ran a smart campaign; he has done an incredibly good job. But the way he energized his message was on an antiwar platform. He’s trying slowly to change it. But once you get framed, it’s very difficult to get re-framed. If he wins the nomination can he beat George Bush? As of July 2003 — it’s still early and he can change his message — Howard Dean loses and loses badly.”
But, Kofinis said, Bush is vulnerable on the security issue — because U.S. troops are overstretched and because “there was little or no thought given to how difficult the job would be after the war. This is unacceptable.”