Howard Dean must be the product of a Karl Rove plot. How else to explain the Democratic National Committee chairman who so often acts as an unpaid agent of the Republican party? Democratic governors and senators run from him when he visits their states; he is badly losing the fundraising race to the Republican National Committee; and he routinely produces new gaffes. Dean?s handlers have carefully kept him off national TV, until they unleashed him on ?Meet the Press? this past weekend.
Dean was returning to the forum of one of his signature triumphs in his presidential campaign. He appeared so ill-informed during a Meet the Press performance in June 2003 that his supporters rallied to him as a repudiation of politics as usual (boring, conventional politicians try to avoid looking ill-informed). On Sunday, Dean was every bit himself, nasty and shaky on the facts. After three years of high-profile national politics, he is still unfailingly able to project a sense that he doesn?t know what he?s talking about.
Host Tim Russert asked him about his recent comment that Tom DeLay should go to jail. Dean stood by it. DeLay?s ?crimes? are so notorious that Dean had to bring a list of them on set to remind himself of what they supposedly are. He couldn?t correctly pronounce the name of the lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, at the center of the corruption that so outrages him. Of course, DeLay hasn?t been plausibly accused of any crimes, let alone indicted for one, and his offenses are alleged violations of House rules, which don?t carry jail time.
?I don?t think I?m prejudging him,? Dean told Russert, then in the same breath: ?I think there?s a reasonable chance that this may end up in jail.? He defended the DNC having a mug shot of DeLay on its website, then in the same breath: ?We?re not going to stoop to the kind of divisiveness [of] the Republicans.? Later on the program he intoned, hilariously, ?We ought not to lecture each other about our ethical shortcomings.?
On Iraq, Dean dug deeper. He criticized President Bush for his dishonesty in saying that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Reminded by Russert that he had said the same thing, Dean allowed, ?I thought there probably were.? Russert pointed out that Democrats like John Kerry also warned of Iraq?s WMDs. ?Because they were told that by the president,? Dean insisted. But Kerry and others were warning about Saddam?s weapons well before Bush took office. Does Dean not know these things, or is he just dishonest?
He occasionally has the right, if futile, idea. Dean said Democrats must not be portrayed as the pro-abortion party: ?I don?t know anybody who thinks abortion is a good thing.? He apparently hasn?t talked to many NARAL activists lately. Dean floated the idea that state medical boards should set guidelines for abortion, apparently not realizing that that would likely require overturning Roe v. Wade and make him an ?extremist? fit to be filibustered were he nominated to the federal bench.
Then there were Dean?s typical flubs. He said that the cap on payroll taxes for Social Security kicks in at $85,000. It?s $90,000. In a slip of the tongue, he attacked the insinuation ?that Osama bin Laden had something to do with supporting terrorists.? He said ?that abortions have gone up 25 percent since George Bush was president.? According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, abortions declined in 2001 and 2002, the latest years for which statistics are available.
Democrats used to be the party that took governing and politics seriously. For a chunk of the 20th century, they ran rings around Republicans in Congress, thanks to their superior knowledge and determination. But for the left-wing MoveOn.org activists that Dean so faithfully represents, politics is primarily a way to vent their spleen and frustration.
As party chairman, Dean may be a disaster, but he is their disaster, and that?s all that matters.