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Why Dean dominates the Democrats

Howard Dean acknowledges supporters as he accepts his new position as DNC Chairman
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean revels in applause Saturday, flanked by outgoing chairman Terry McAuliffe.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
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Why do those Republicans keep prattling on about “moral values”? That was the question one member of the Women’s Caucus posed to Howard Dean on Friday at the Democratic National Committee meeting.

“When they don’t have any, is that what you mean?” Dean replied.

That’s the Howard Dean we reporters got to know on the campaign trail in 2003: quicksilver, brusque, and happily contemptuous of his enemies.

In his debut speeches as party chairman over the weekend Dean assailed Republicans as “Pharisees and Sadducees,” the hypocrites whom Jesus denounced. He also cited Matthew, chapter 19, verse 24 on the difficulty of a rich man entering into the kingdom of God, a concept which, he said, wasn’t part of the Republican platform.

Dean was brandishing what have become the obligatory New Testament references in a post-election environment in which Democrats are trying to show voters that they, too, have moral values and religious beliefs.

Dean, Pelosi and Reid
When Dean enters a room there is always a sense that something unexpected might happen. The Democrats’ two other national leaders at the moment, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, lack Dean’s verve and mastery of polemics.

Dean will, at least for the next few months, be the spokesman for his party, even though he said Saturday he won’t be propounding policy. And he said, “I am not going to run in 2008.”

By this summer, the Democratic contenders for 2008 may crowd Dean out of the public eye. Those candidates will likely include Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who warned in 2003 when Dean's candidacy was soaring, that "the Democratic Party is at risk of being taken over by the far left."

But for now Dean is the star.

“Once Howard Dean applies the same techniques that he used during his campaign to the word ‘Democrat’ and turns the DNC into the primary place fighting the Republican agenda, that is a party that can do extraordinary things,” said Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democrat Network, who ran against Dean for the chairmanship.

Rosenberg envisions six million people, daily checking the DNC website and getting Dean e-mail messages. “Those people will be reporting to Howard Dean,” he said.

But Dean will be boxed in by one fact: decisions that will affect grass-roots Democrats’ morale, such as whether or not to filibuster President Bush’s judicial nominees, will be made by others, not by him.

The Southern problem
The South — where neither Al Gore in 2000 nor John Kerry in 2004 won any states — remains one of the party’s fatal weaknesses, as Dean acknowledged.

“I’ll pretty much be living in red states in the South and the West for a quite a while,” he said Saturday. “That’s where we need a lot of work, that’s where people are most skeptical about the Democratic Party.”

The former Vermont governor is heading to Mississippi on March 1 to speak at a fundraiser for the state party.

He confronts a split between Southern Democrats and the party’s leadership. Last week’s House vote on a bill to crack down on driver’s licenses for illegal aliens illustrates the schism.

The states where the Democrats have failed in presidential elections are precisely the places represented by House Democrats who voted for the alien crack-down.

The 42 Democratic members, about 20 percent of House Democrats, who voted for the bill were nearly all from the South and from rural districts in the Midwest. The 152 Democrats who voted against it were mostly from the Northeast, the West Coast, and liberal bastions such as Minneapolis and Boulder, Colo.

The driver’s license issue, Tennessee Democratic State chairman Randy Button said, “is very sensitive to our state… we have had a flood of people to our state, illegal, getting driver’s licenses.” All five of Tennessee’s Democratic House members voted for the crackdown on illegal aliens’ driver’s licenses.

It was much the same pattern in last year’s vote on Unborn Victims of Violence Act, making it a separate offense when committing a violent crime to cause the death of, or injury to, a child who is in utero. Most Southern and rural Democrats voted for the bill, while the party’s northeast and Pacific Coast majority voted against it.

How to bridge this divide?

“Allow those 20 percent (of House Democrats) as well as those 80 percent to define the common denominator that links us all together as Democrats and stay on that message,” said Button, who was attending the DNC meeting in Washington.

What is that common denominator? “Opportunity,” said Button, “opportunity in education, opportunity in providing health care, opportunity for new jobs.”

Democrats on same-sex marriage
As for the high-profile issue of a ban on same-sex marriage, southern Democrats have not ceded that to Republicans, he said. “We have Democrats now who are out sponsoring the constitutional amendment in Tennessee to have a permanent ban on same-sex marriage,” Button noted. “So there are Democrats in Tennessee that are as conservative on some of these values issues as some of the Republicans.”

Gay and lesbian advocacy groups, such as the Human Rights Campaign, which supports legalization of same-sex marriages, are one of the Democrats' strongest constituencies.

Dean sees the differences over such issues not as ones of substance, but of semantics: “Language makes an enormous difference,” he said.

Thinking back to Kerry’s defeat last November, he told the DNC Women’s Caucus, “Family values? How could we possibly lose? We are the party of family values!”

The lesson: “It is not what we believe that has caused us to lose. It is the way we talked about what we believe.”