Dean's 'fat chance'

Posted: Feb 17, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Howard Dean, doing a victory lap last week after his final competitor for the Democratic national chairmanship dropped out, greeted a roomful of supporters with a grin and said: "I'm trying to be restrained in my new role. I may be looking for a three-piece suit." After pausing, he laughed and then declared -- to his backers' delight -- "Fat chance!"
Dean's enthusiasts variously say he was just kidding or was referring literally to three-piece suits, not to restraining rhetoric or refraining from policy determinations. Fat chance, indeed. Statements from Democrats in Congress that the feisty 2004 presidential candidate will restrict himself to fund-raising and precinct organization are delusional. Howard Dean as chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is not beholden to the congressional leaders who were so ineffective in barring his path to leadership.

 Dean's chairmanship, thought extremely unlikely when he first indicated his availability three months ago, is itself testimony to his party's aimlessness. Just as no power broker selected the former Vermont governor as DNC chairman, none is charting a strategy for regaining power. The mindless course leading to Dean's election by acclamation reflects a party adrift, its senior leaders mired in unreality.

 Just how unrealistic they are was demonstrated last weekend on Fox News Sunday by Sen. Joseph Biden, ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. He contended "no party chairman's ever made a bit of difference" in determining policy. Would Dean then have any policy role at all? "Absolutely not," Biden replied. He added that "we'll see whether or not" Dean effectively improves party organization, "but he's not going to have a policy role, and he's stated that."

 Biden is a six-term senator, but he fails history. Robert S. Strauss did not impose a heavy hand in his chairmanship (1972-77), but deftly influenced policy. I observed him at the 1974 mid-term party convention in Kansas City moderating his party on racial quotas. Paul M. Butler as chairman in 1955-1960 fought congressional leaders Lyndon B. Johnson and Sam Rayburn for more liberal policies, and the 1960 party platform indicated Butler had won.

 History aside, Biden displays uncharacteristic naivete in taking Dean at his word about eschewing policy. Over the last three months of campaigning for chairman, he stressed no compromise on issues. When he declared last month that "I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for," he was not exhibiting what Biden called Dean's "organizational skills."

 The conventional wisdom in Washington is that the flamboyant Dean will overpower newly installed Republican Chairman Ken Mehlman, the understated 2004 Bush campaign manager. Old Democratic hands are not so optimistic about the coming Mehlman vs. Dean televised face-offs -- cool and disciplined vs. emotional and unpredictable. "Dean will have a circus on Sunday, and we'll clean up the elephant droppings on Monday," a Democratic veteran told me.

 On those Sunday programs, Dean will be asked what to do about Iraq. He will not imitate Joe Biden's nuanced analysis, but instead will serve up red meat. It is unlikely Dean would or could adjust to the new atmosphere observed by sophisticated Democratic strategists since the Iraqi elections. Bashing George W. Bush and his war policy, Dean's specialty, no longer seems so suitable.

 Dean's accession to the chairmanship does not represent a conscious decision by prominent Democrats, but rather the result of drift and inaction. Former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard, seen as the best bet to beat Dean, did not run when party leaders failed to unite behind him. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, head of the Democratic Governors Association, never specified the "moderate" from a "red" state he said he was seeking. Congressional leaders picked, in former Rep. Tim Roemer, the one candidate who could not possibly win because of his anti-abortion stance. Anti-Dean forces never coalesced behind former Rep. Martin Frost.

 Finally, Dean won because he was the only candidate who pestered DNC members with repeated phone calls. He did not go to all this trouble to be a potted plant. The party, therefore, is stuck with somebody who believes that the fiercer the rhetoric the better, and there is "fat chance" that he will change.