WASHINGTON -- After Howard Dean last weekend declared Tom DeLay ought to be in jail, a longtime Democratic operative told me the party's national chairman had momentarily ripped off his muzzle but that it soon would be restored. My source erred, however, in believing that Dean ever had been muzzled. It's just that nobody has paid much attention to his rants.
Since his election as chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) on Feb. 12, Dean has studiously avoided most national television exposure. But he has been talking constantly to party gatherings across the country, and his intemperate language at these outings contradicts the notion that he has been kept under control. That he will leap onto the national stage Sunday by accepting a long-pending request to appear on NBC's "Meet the Press" with Tim Russert raises concern among the Democratic political players whether he will contain himself.
Dean's election by the DNC membership was a case of the inmates seizing control of the asylum. After the 2004 election, party leaders spent more than three months in a fruitless effort to find an alternative to Dean. Their fears of money drying up under Dean have largely been realized, but they have deluded themselves into thinking the former Vermont governor who screamed his way out of any hope for the 2004 presidential nomination was under firm restraint.
The party's congressional leaders, Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, sat down with the newly elected Chairman Dean for a heart-to-heart talk. They politely urged him to restrain his rhetoric, to organize rather than inflame. Dean thereupon buried himself seeking Democratic converts in the "red" states of Republican America, giving the impression that he was heeding the pleas of the congressional leadership.
He was not. He has described the Republican leadership, in various venues, as "evil," "corrupt" and "brain-dead." He has called Sen. Rick Santorum, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, a "liar." He has referred to conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh as "drug-snorting."
What he said last weekend differed from this invective only in that it was presented to an urban forum and so became public knowledge. Addressing the Massachusetts Democratic convention in Lowell, Dean declared: "I think DeLay ought to go back to Houston where he can serve his jail sentence down there courtesy of the Texas taxpayers." Dean would jail DeLay without trial, without indictment and without accusation of any crime.
National chairmen are supposed to fire up the troops, but Dean's rhetoric crosses a line. What he said was too much even for so tough a partisan Democrat as Rep. Barney Frank, who attended his state's convention in Lowell and was appalled by Dean's language.
Dean's deficiencies as face and voice of the Democratic Party were supposed to be overcome by his legendary prowess, evident by his run for president, raising funds in small packages. That so far has proved a grievous disappointment. First quarter figures show the DNC received only $13 million from inviduals, compared to $32 million raised by the Republican National Committtee (RNC). Overall figures were $34.2 million by the RNC, $16.7 million by the DNC.
Dean has not always kept himself faithful to the Democratic message. On Feb. 23 at Cornell University, he blurted out that Social Security benefits -- if the system is left unchanged -- 30 years from now will be 80 percent of what they are now. That was a shocking departure from the party line that nothing has to be done.
But the only place that Dean's Social Security departure appeared was in the Cornell Daily Sun, the student newspaper. His limited exposure generally means that little of what he says is communicated to the public. He has been convinced that he has nothing to gain from face-to-face debates on television with his cool, well-organized Republican counterpart, Ken Mehlman.
Accordingly, anticipation of Howard Dean, cut loose and unmuzzled, on "Meet the Press" Sunday is unsettling for the party's faithful. This will be his first exposure as chairman on a major network interview, and Russert predictably will be well prepared with a rap sheet of the chairman's verbal assaults. The prospect that Dean will make juicy additions to that collection unnerves Democrats.