Howard Dean or anybody but?

Two very different politicians are leading the race for the DNC chair, but neither has the contest clinched -- and others are closing in. Where is the Democratic Party going?

Published January 28, 2005 9:26PM (EST)

The two leading candidates to head the Democratic National Committee are a former congressman who cozied up to George W. Bush in his last run for reelection -- and still lost -- and a failed presidential candidate who so frightens some conservative Democrats that they may go Republican if he is elected chairman.

Who says that the Democratic Party is in trouble?

As Democrats struggle to make sense of what happened in 2004 -- as they find themselves divided over whether to support Bush nominees like Condoleezza Rice and floating trial balloons about compromise on core Democratic issues like abortion -- the 447 voting members of the Democratic National Committee are in the process of choosing their party's new chairman. In a sense, the vote comes too early; with no clear consensus on where the party should be going, it's hard to know what kind of leader it's going to need. But the DNC will meet in Washington to vote on Feb. 12, and at the moment, the race is led by two men who -- fairly or not -- are seen as offering starkly different visions of the party's future.

In former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, progressive Democrats see a charismatic outsider who can revolutionize the party by drawing on the grass roots and "net roots" support that drove his presidential campaign. In former Texas Rep. Martin Frost, moderate and conservative Democrats see an experienced Washington hand who helped the party pick up congressional seats even in the dark days of Newt Gingrich's "Contract for America."

Neither Dean nor Frost has yet clinched the 224 votes needed to win the chairmanship, and it's not clear that either can get there. Dean's support may max out far short of 224 -- there are "a lot of Washington insiders worried about losing their meal ticket," a veteran Democratic strategist told Salon this week -- and Frost may not be able to win over reform-minded DNC members currently loyal to Dean. That leaves room for a consensus to emerge around lesser known candidates -- New Democrat Network president Simon Rosenberg or Democratic strategist Donnie Fowler -- if neither Dean nor Frost wins on the first ballot.

The other candidates in the race seem less able to capitalize on a Dean-Frost split. Former Ohio state party chairman David Leland has been a nonfactor. Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb has picked up some public endorsements but appears to have little room to build on them. And former Indiana Rep. and 9/11 commissioner Tim Roemer, who, made a splash early in the race with a report that he had the support of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, has seen his campaign begin to crumble over concerns about his personal opposition to abortion. Pelosi isn't endorsing him, and her spokeswoman insists that she never did -- that she only "encouraged" him to "get in the race" because of his credibility on national security issues.

Rosenberg said this week that the race remains "wide open," at least for the upper-tier candidates, and that support is "soft" for all of them. Aides to several candidates have expressed surprise that, as early endorsements leak out, Dean isn't closer to nailing down a majority. Fowler says that Frost has little "room to grow" because reformers view him as the anti-Dean. "When I talk to people, they say, 'It's you or Frost, Donnie,' or 'It's you or Dean, Donnie,'" Fowler told Salon earlier this week. "It's never 'Frost or Dean.'"

It may not ultimately be Frost or Dean, but right now it's all Frost or Dean, and that's precisely what has so many Democrats in so much despair. The Dean-friendly blogosphere is unloading on Frost for running a TV commercial during his 2004 campaign in which he seemed to align himself with George W. Bush and other Washington Republicans. "Who backed President Bush?" the ad's announcer asked. "Kay Hutchison and Martin Frost . . . Speaker Hastert and Martin Frost . . . John McCain and Martin Frost." Daily Kos blogger Markos Moulitsas, who worked briefly for Dean's presidential campaign, says that Frost's ads make him "grossly unqualified" for the chairmanship. "If you spend a year distancing yourself from the Democratic Party and sucking up to Bush, Hastert and Hutchinson, then you have no business trying to run the Democratic Party," Moulitsas wrote on his blog last week. Rosenberg, one of the candidates Moulitsas is backing in the DNC race, is only a little more equivocal about the ads, calling them "very problematic" for a man who wants to lead the Democratic Party.

Frost and his supporters see it otherwise, of course. "My God, he was running in Texas," says New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid, one of a handful of DNC members who have endorsed Frost publicly. Madrid said the ads show only that Frost is a "pragmatist" who "knows what he has to do to win."

Frost didn't win in 2004, but it's hard to blame him for it. Frost was first elected to Congress in 1978, and he won reelection again and again through the 1980s and 1990s, ultimately rising through the party ranks to chair both the Democratic Caucus and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. At the DCCC, Frost says he helped the Democrats pick up 14 seats in the House of Representatives, an experience he has made a centerpiece of his DNC campaign.

Having a Texan in the Democratic leadership didn't sit well with Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. So when the Republicans redrew the congressional district lines for Texas in 2003, DeLay targeted Frost for elimination. He succeeded. After DeLay carved up his old district, Frost was left with little choice but to run for "reelection" in a new, heavily Republican district against a Republican incumbent, Pete Sessions. It was an uphill battle, and a nasty one, too. At one point, Sessions ran a radio ad claiming that Frost had invited a "convicted child molester" to perform at a fundraiser for him. It was a reference to Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary, who pled guilty in 1970 to taking "immoral and indecent liberties" with a 14-year-old fan and was pardoned for the crime by Jimmy Carter in 1981.

While it's true that Frost downplayed his party affiliation in his new district -- the word "Democrat" seldom appeared on his campaign materials -- Frost said he ran the TV ad aligning himself with Bush not to show that he agreed with the president, but rather to show that his opponent was so extreme that he didn't. "The point I was making in the ad was that my opponent didn't support the president's homeland security legislation," Frost said. "He was one of only, like, nine people in Congress who voted against it. He was on the lunatic fringe of an issue that everyone agreed was an important issue, and I thought this was a pretty graphic way of showing it."

Tom Eisenhauer, who chairs Frost's DNC campaign, said that the ad may be important to bloggers but has "not been an issue" with DNC members. "I don't see the relevance, really," Eisenhauer said, pointing to the fact that Howard Dean himself said just last week "there are some things we can support the president on." The difference, of course, is that Dean is so thoroughly typecast as a raving, anti-Bush liberal that he can make vaguely conciliatory comments about the president without having anyone doubt his Democratic bona fides. Frost doesn't have that kind of latitude because he doesn't have Dean's reputation or rock-star status as a former presidential candidate.

That's not all bad for Frost. His aides insist that, because of his relatively anonymity, Frost can help Democratic candidates in every district in every state. Dean can't do that, they say, pointing to a few Democratic officeholders in red states who predict dire consequences for the party if Dean becomes its leader. In Tennessee on Wednesday, Democratic state Sen. Tommy Kilby sent a letter to his state party chairman, warning that "many Democratic elected officials will abandon the party" if Dean is elected. "We, as a party, must get back to mainstream America," Kilby wrote. "We must open our party and allow people who are pro-life, pro-gun and pro-traditional marriage to have an active role in developing our platform and message."

Comments such as Kilby's may be based more on perception than reality. While Dean is strongly pro-choice, he said on "Meet the Press" in December that he wants to "make a home" in the party for "pro-life Democrats"; his views on gun control put him to the right of most Democrats on the issue; and when forced to choose between civil unions or marriage rights for gay couples in Vermont, Dean chose civil unions.

But perception is reality in politics, and neither the media, the Republican Party nor some Democrats will let Dean drop the baggage that he picked up in his presidential run. An aide to one of Dean's opponents in the DNC race predicts that Republicans will hang Dean around the neck of every Democrat who dares to run for office in anything but the bluest of districts. "It's the worst fucking position to be in," the aide said. "If you're one of the candidates, it hurts you with the swing voters if you don't dis Dean, and if you do dis him, it pisses off your core activists."

In a way, that dynamic is playing out now in the DNC race. The candidates who aren't Howard Dean want the anti-Dean vote, but they don't want to be seen as the anti-Dean candidate for fear of coming off as negative or cutting off support from DNC voters looking to shake up the party. Frost will say almost nothing about Dean publicly. "Gov. Dean is telling his story, and I'm telling my own story," he told Salon this week. While Fowler notes that Dean failed to ride his grass-roots support to victory in the Democratic primaries -- Dean "had a lot of oranges but didn't make orange juice," Fowler said -- he emphasizes that he's "not an anti-Dean candidate" because he's "afraid that 'anti-Dean' may end up meaning anti-grass roots and anti-innovation." Rosenberg said he's "a big fan of Howard Dean's," but then he stressed that Dean will have to prove over the next few weeks "that he's going to be acceptable to Democrats all over the country."

Establishment Democrats have tried to throw up roadblocks to the Dean campaign, or at least to limit the damage they think he could do as the DNC chair. As Newsweek reports, a group of Democratic governors sought to split the chairmanship in an arrangement that would have put Dean in control of day-to-day DNC operations with a more moderate Democrat in the role of party spokesperson. They lacked the votes -- or the more moderate Democrat -- to pull it off. Meanwhile, labor leaders, and maybe even the Clintons, are apparently wary about banding together behind an anti-Dean candidate for fear that they'll end up on the wrong side of the eventual victor.

Dean is working the race hard; he is in virtually nonstop communication with DNC voters by phone and in person. Not surprisingly, he has focused his discussions less on his political ideology and more on the reforms he wants to bring to the DNC. He talks to local DNC members about their funding needs, about involving them more in the process, about making sure that Democrats in even the reddest states get the resources they need to start growing candidates and building a party infrastructure. Win or lose, Dean will have forced changes in the party. Wyoming Democratic Party chairman Mike Gierau, who owns Jedidiah's House of Sourdough in Jackson, Wyo., says that he's used to being "49th or the 50th on the depth chart" when it comes to getting resources from the national party. In part because of Dean's influence, in part because of the open and extended nature of this race, Gierau says that whoever is elected chair will have committed himself to doing more for all state parties, and not just the ones in swing states where the party's presidential candidates need the most help.

Dean's commitment to a 50-state strategy is helping him win endorsements in places that might otherwise shun him. The state chairman in Oklahoma endorsed Dean last week. And while that prompted another Oklahoman, state Sen. and DNC member Debbe Lefwich, to protest that Dean does not share the values of "most Oklahoma Democrats," Dean is trying hard to alleviate such concerns. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll suggests that he's not quite the polarizing figure that he once was. As Dean campaigns for the DNC chairmanship, he jokes about "the scream" at every opportunity, and he seems to be making a conscious effort to tone down the rhetoric that made him both revered and reviled in the 2004 race.

Appearing last week on ABC's "This Week," Dean said he would have voted against Condoleezza Rice's nomination as secretary of state if he'd had the chance. But while the Howard Dean of old might have accused Rice of "misstating the case" on Iraq and making "ridiculous" arguments about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, Dean the DNC candidate was more subdued. He said only that Rice's "chief attribute in this position is loyalty" when what the country needs is a secretary of state who is an "independent thinker" who is "willing to give the president advice that he doesn't want to hear."

But even that was more critical than anything Frost was willing to say on the subject. Asked this week whether he would have voted against Rice's confirmation, Frost told Salon it was a "hypothetical question" and refused to answer it. Frost said that Calif. Sen. Barbara Boxer had done "exactly the right thing" in questioning Rice about the war, but he said he wouldn't presume "to tell a senator how to vote" on Rice's confirmation.

Frost is not always so circumspect. As a member of Congress, Frost voted in 2002 for the joint resolution that authorized the use of military force in Iraq. Asked today whether that vote was a mistake, Frost says: "I think we were lied to. I think we were not told the truth. And I am very disappointed that one part of the government lied to another part of the government." Analogizing his vote to a baseball pitcher who just gave up a home run, he adds: "You can't take the pitch back. You can't revote it. But I think that we were not told the truth, and what the executive branch did was inexcusable." Frost said Bush should be held to account for Iraq, and he has called on Donald Rumsfeld to resign.

While Dean has been a more consistent opponent of the war in Iraq, Dean and Frost -- and, indeed, most of the DNC candidates -- agree far more often than they disagree on political issues and the way they should be framed. There's a general consensus among the candidates that John Kerry lost in November because the Democrats were unable to persuade voters that they could be trusted with America's national security. "We have a strong record in that regard," Frost said, "and I wish we had spent more time communicating that. We were the ones who first proposed the Department of Homeland Security, and the Republicans opposed it. We were the ones who first proposed the 9/11 commission, and the Republicans resisted it. We have a good story to tell."

Frost said that the Democrats should front some of their "most credible" voices on national security, singling out Rep. Jane Harman of California and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. For more liberal Democrats, that kind of suggestion is another nail in the Frost coffin: It was Lieberman, after all, who this week urged Democrats to deliver a "resounding vote" in favor of Condoleezza Rice to show national unity on the war in Iraq. On domestic issues, the DNC candidates agree that their party must do more to address the question of "moral values." But several of them believe that the role of values in the November election has been overstated and that the response of some Democrats -- that the party needs to move more to the right -- is misguided. Fowler, for one, says the press's post-election emphasis on values was the result of Republican manipulation and spin. "That was a brilliant move by Karl Rove and the Republicans," Fowler said. They woke up the day after the election and said, 'We won, we actually won,' and then, the next day or that night, they said, 'Hey, let's win something else. What can we do to win the post-election?' So they said to the press, 'Look at this poll. It says if you have morals and values you voted for the Republicans.' And the press said, 'Uh-huh,' and then the Democrats said, 'Wait a minute, we have morals . . . don't we?'"

Whether "moral values" turned the election or not, each of the candidates in the DNC race believes that Democrats must engage in a conversation with voters about values. For Frost, that means making sure voters know, among other things, that Democrats believe in God. For Dean and Rosenberg, it means explaining that "values" is more than just a code word for opposition to abortion and gay rights. In Sacramento last week at the DNC's Western Caucus meeting, Dean said that "moral values" mean telling the truth before sending young Americans to war, protecting the environment, building a better education system and not leaving a massive federal deficit for future generations. "So let us be the party of moral values, let us be the party of economic opportunity, let us stand up for equality in this country again," Dean told a cheering crowd of supporters. Fowler echoed those words later in the week in an interview with Salon, saying that Democrats should explain their values as "opportunity, access, getting a fair shake if you play by the rules, a strong family, a strong community and safe senior citizens."

With Roemer, Webb and Leland seemingly far from the front, Fowler and Rosenberg appear to be in the best position to prevail if anti-Dean voters keep Dean from winning and Frost fails to win over enough "anybody but Dean" voters. Fowler and Rosenberg are both young, and they both argue that they're best-of-both-worlds alternatives to Dean and Frost. "What you get with me is a proven track record of winning in red states and the proven history of working with grass roots and 'net roots,'" Rosenberg said. Not surprisingly, there's a fair amount of sniping between Fowler and Rosenberg camps. Rosenberg's aides grumble that Fowler is running on the coattails of his father, former DNC chairman Don Fowler. Fowler, in turn, dismisses Rosenberg as an articulate guy who is "winning the chattering classes in San Francisco and New York" but not making much progress with voting members of the Democratic National Committee.

Fowler and Rosenberg both talk a good game about being first-tier candidates, but their real job now is to build enough support to make sure they survive the first ballot -- in each round of voting on Feb. 12, the candidate with the least votes drops out -- and then to make sure that they're the second or third choice of a whole lot of DNC voters. "Howard Dean can't win if he doesn't win outright on the first ballot," Rosenberg says.

Dean's fortunes -- and everything else -- should become a bit clearer in the week ahead. The candidates converge on New York this weekend for a final meet-and-greet session with DNC voters; when that session is over, labor leaders and state party chairs will begin to roll out their endorsements in earnest. The Democrats may not know where they're headed next week, but they may well have a better sense of who is going to take them there.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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