Back in December, I wrote a piece about the DNC chairman's race called "Dr. Dean: Wrong Prescription for Democrats." Six months and several Howard Dean gaffes later, many of the leading lights of the Democratic Party are apparently now having the same misgivings.
Dean's counterproductive if statistically correct labeling of the GOP as "pretty much a white, Christian party" is only the latest cause of damage control in Democratic circles. In the Senate, Joe Biden, Joe Lieberman, Dick Durbin and rising star Barack Obama have raised concerns over Dean's intemperate commentary. In the House, Nancy Pelosi, Harold Ford Jr. and Ellen Tauscher distanced themselves as well. And Virginia Governor Mark Warner, a 2008 presidential hopeful, worried that Dean's was not "the kind of tone a lot of the Democratic governors in mostly Republican states are using to get elected or to govern."
Across the liberal blogosphere, many of my usual allies have predictably rushed to Dean's defense. Anyone who simultaneously fires up the Democratic base and draws fire from the Republicans (or worse yet, centrist Democrats) must be doing something right, or so the argument goes. For example, Atrios claimed that, "Democrat insider attacks on Howard Dean are, frankly, an attack on all of us." Over at DailyKos, a diarist praised General Wesley Clark's support for Dean, "I guess this is just further proof that Clark isn't a real Democrat or isn't Democrat enough. If Biden and Edwards are examples of "real Democrats" then I'll take Clark's example because he and I....HAVE HOWARD'S BACK!" Besides, my friends argue, look at all the money Dean's raised.
But Dean's skills at fundraising and firing up the troops are not the issue here. What's ailing the Democrats isn't primarily about grassroots efforts in all 50 states (though that matters) or about not being "Republican lite." As I wrote in December:
Dean is focused on the symptoms, and not the disease itself. Democrats must be more than the Party of No. Democrats must say what they stand for and articulate a positive policy program for change, all in a way that is easily communicated.
Democrats need to take a deep breath, look in the mirror, and focus on who we're speaking to and what are our priorities. For all of the energy, outrage and intellectual horsepower being expended, what is the "meta-story", the unifying theme for groups like MoveOn and America Coming Together (ACT) on the left and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and the New Democrat Network (NDN) in the center? When John Kerry lost every income group over $50,000 a year, was mauled both among white men (62-37%) and white women (55%-44%), and saw George Bush gets 42% of the Hispanic vote, who are we speaking to? Suburban voters (like "Office Park Dads", "Soccer Moms", or "Security Moms") or the mythical "ideopolis" of "creative class" professionals and urban minority voters? Have we created accidentally a de facto left-wing cacophony that obscures issues and confuses Americans as much as the right-wing noise machine we loathe?
As the old saying goes, ya gotta dance with who brung ya. So I'll continue to back Howard Dean. But I can't help but agree with a clearly frustrated Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford, Jr., who concluded, "his leadership right now is not serving any of us very well. We really don't have a message right now."