Dean's Democrats Remain Pathetic

Is there anything more depressing than watching the Democratic Party lie down in front of the Bush administration's public-relations and political steamroller? The latest cave-in -- giving Bush three far-right judges in exchange for the temporary preservation of the Senate's filibuster perogative -- was enough to make me violate Jefferson's dictum against despairing of the commonwealth.

My question, unfortunately, is rhetorical, for I witnessed something even more dispiriting two weeks ago, at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser and pep rally in New York. It was the sight of Howard Dean, erstwhile Democratic reformer and truth talker, talking nonsense on behalf of a party leadership that hates reform and despises the truth.

As chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the lapsed physician now carries the stretcher for a party too sick even to diagnose its own organizational self-interest, much less defend the social and constitutional principles now under siege by the White House. The only thing worse than Dean's prepared platitudes, sometimes shouted, is his virtual silence on the two great issues that Democrats work so hard not to confront: the hideous, mendacious war in Iraq and the big-money corruption of electoral politics and congressional legislation.

Granted, the gathering at the Essex House ballroom, on Central Park South, wasn't an ordinary public event. The several hundred attendees were mostly hard-core party faithful, aparatchiks, office holders, and office seekers, led by New York State Chair Herman "Denny" Farrell and state Senate Minority Leader David Paterson. Nor was the Dean message for party regulars exactly the one he uses for a general audience, such as that of Meet the Press last month.

But it's not that different, either. And that message -- which Dean recites with numbing consistency -- is all about image, and almost not at all about substance: in short, the kind of empty phrases that Dean so effectively ridiculed during his ill-fated presidential campaign.

About all that remains of the old Dean is his "You have the power!" slogan, which sounded absurd in front of this crowd, partly made up of political hacks who already know they have the power -- the power, that is, to slate candidates selected from a pool of uncontroversial yes people, who have proven their loyalty to the Democratic Party. When Dean used to bellow his famous crowd pleaser, he meant quite specifically that his supporters had the power to reclaim the Democratic Party from the cynical Clinton-trained leadership that had voted for war in Iraq and is addicted to campaign cash from corporations, lobbyists, and plutocrats. For all Dean's up-from-the-bottom Internet rhetoric, in today's Democratic Party all cash is created equal, but some cash is still more equal than other cash.

It's significant that Andrew Tobias, picked as DNC treasurer in 1999 by Bill Clinton and his hotel manager, former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, remains treasurer under Dean, and introduced his new boss at the Essex House. "The doctor is in!" whooped Tobias, and so was the cash register.

The doctor followed with a jumble of self-contradicting phrases, amplified with the old Dean lung power:

  • "We are really not in the wilderness," because 48 percent of the people voted for John Kerry. (Maybe I'm naive, but I thought the election was a disaster for the Dems, given their losses in the House and Senate -- even despite Bush's scandalous inattention before 9/11 and equally scandalous lies about Saddam Hussein's weapons. And didn't Dean once call Kerry "another special-interest clone in Washington"? )

  • "People think we should have good jobs that stay in the U.S.," Dean declared. They disapprove of Bush's "borrow and spend" fiscal policy, and pine for the good old days of Clintonian fiduciary rectitude. (Didn't Clinton ram job-exporting and trade-deficit-ballooning NAFTA and China-trade normalization through Congress, over the objections of many in his party?)

  • "Maybe we can't win the presidency in Mississippi, [but] we have a moral obligation to win the governorship in Mississippi." (What's that mean? Why not a moral obligation to win the presidency in Mississippi, and why couldn't they win both? Wasn't Dean the guy who said, astutely, that Democrats should appeal to working-class Southerners with Confederate flags in their pickup-truck windows?)

But the most remarkable thing about Dean's speech was, literally, its thoughtlessness -- now a virtue in the Dean playbook. Democrats, he said, need to take seriously the fears of "moral Republicans," instead of saying "That's ridiculous" ("Clinton would have said, 'I feel your pain' "). Pointing to his head, Dean explained how to do it: "We have to stop talking from here anymore"; then, pointing to his heart, he said, "We have to speak to them from here."

As for delivering this heartfelt message, Dean said, "When we're talking to the television, we'll say it in ten seconds or less," just like the "good politician" Bush. (Wasn't the very thoughtful Dean famous for turning his campaign rallies into town meetings, with extensive question-and-answer periods? Can't a redneck tell he's being talked down to just as quickly as a New York intellectual? Does Bush's lying in 10-second sound bites make him a tactical role model for the Democrats?)

I could go on -- Dean did -- but it's too sad. I asked a prominent New York Democrat standing near me why DNC Chairman Dean never denounced the Iraq occupation/bloodbath, and the politician, an old acquaintance, seemed to flinch. I promised I wouldn't quote him by name, but his reaction was worth noting: "Maybe he [Dean] should talk about Iraq. Nine American soldiers died in Iraq in the last two days. If [Al] Gore were president, can you imagine the screams from the Republicans?"

All I heard from Dean was a squeak; "the mess in Iraq" was as far as he would go. Anyway, he had already thrown in the Iraq towel in April, in a speech in front of the Minnesota ACLU: "Now that we're there... we can't get out.... I hope the president is incredibly successful with his policy now."

Thus is the tribune of the anti-war movement reduced to realpolitik. Thus does the crusader from the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" do the bidding of his natural enemies, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton, Joseph Biden, and Evan Bayh -- each one pro-war and each an expert practitioner of the old-school dollars-for-favors fundraising racket.

I can't believe that Howard Dean feels very good about what he's doing. I can't believe that deep down he doesn't hear the hypocrisy when he exhorts his audience, "We've got to stop talking about programs and start talking about principles."

If he really means to pursue this unprincipled strategy in the name of Democratic "victory," he'd do more good back in Burlington practicing medicine.

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