WASHINGTON -- When six opponents gathered at public broadcasting studios outside Des Moines last Sunday for yet another debate, they searched frantically for some way to slow Howard Dean's presidential express. Two candidates blistered the Democratic front-runner for advocating across-the-board tax increases, but no adversary dared bring up Dean's mixture of religion and politics.
However, one of the three news media questioners, National Public Radio's Michele Norris, raised Dean's new promise to talk about God and Jesus in the South. "In the Northeast," Dean replied, "we do not talk openly about religion." However, "in the South, people do integrate religion openly" and so he would talk about it there. Dean then warned: "I think any columnist who questions my belief is over the line." In short, don't delve into something I brought up. Nobody during the two-hour national television presentation probed what Dean really thinks about God.
That may be why commentators Sunday night declared the former Vermont governor was "unscathed" by the debate. Disagreeing, the adviser to another candidate told me: "I thought he was seriously scathed." Scathing Dean, he said, was his own decision to play the Jesus card during coming intra-party tests in South Carolina and Oklahoma. This critic and like-minded Democrats are unwilling to permit use of their names, only privately criticizing the front-runner about his religious perambulations.
Brought up in his father's Episcopal faith (his mother was Catholic), he married a fellow physician who is Jewish. His children were raised Jewish though they and their mother hardly ever attend services now. Dean himself moved from Episcopalian to Congregationalist "because I had a big fight with a local Episcopal church about 25 years ago over the bike path." He does not hesitate to reveal this information or to declare that he seldom goes to church.
This fits the highly secular profile of Democrats and particularly Democrats who vote in primary elections. One reason for the surprisingly poor standing of Sen. Joseph Lieberman is that, in the words of critics inside the party, "he wears his religion on his sleeve." In contrast, reporters who followed Dean on the campaign trail recently observed that they never had seen so secular a presidential candidate, one who never mentioned God and certainly not Christ.
At that point, Dean declared he was about to change and would bare his religious thoughts as primary campaigns moved to the South and Southwest. He now professed to pray daily and declared he had read the Bible from cover-to-cover. When reporters asked his favorite book of the New Testament, he named Job, which in fact is in the Old Testament and portrays an unforgiving Old Testament deity. Dean returned to reporters, confessing a slight error. When they persisted in asking his favorite part of the New Testament, he prudently answered: "Anything in the Gospels."
Just how to handle this latest Dean peculiarity has puzzled Democrats, friends as well as foes. One veteran political operative who had softened his opposition to Dean and was on the verge of embracing him told me he thinks the doctor "is playing with fire." For secular Democrats, assuming a false facade may be more damaging than genuine religiosity. Nevertheless, any damage to Dean probably will be self-inflicted because even his presidential opponents are wary about wandering onto this dangerous ground.
However, Lieberman and Sen. John Kerry showed no hesitation Sunday attacking Dean's proposal to roll back the entire Bush tax cut, which would increase rates for everyone who pays federal income taxes. "There was no middle-class tax cut," Dean insisted in the Iowa debate. The normally soft-spoken Lieberman jumped in like an avenging angel: "I don't know which is worse -- that he wants to repeal the tax cuts, or that he won't admit that they ever existed."
The Heritage Foundation's analysts show the Dean repeal would mean a 74.2 percent tax increase for families with adjusted gross income between $10,000 and $20,000 and a 44.9 percent boost for $20,000 to $30,000. Incomes over $500,000 would face a 4.4 percent tax increase. It is dangerous for Democrats to follow Howard Dean here, but perhaps less so than where he may be heading on religion.