Howard Dean's supporters should prepare themselves to hear more about the words that the DNC chairman uses in describing the other party. Over the weekend, Joe Biden and John Edwards distanced themselves from Dean after he said that "a lot" of Republicans "have never made an honest living."
Dean clarified his remarks, saying that he meant to refer only to the Republican leadership, and Edwards clarified his, saying that, while Dean expressed his sentiments in a way he wouldn't have, he agrees with Dean's underlying point: "This Republican president and this Republican majority are not doing what they should be doing for working people in this country." But the beat goes on. In California this week, Dean called the Republicans a "a pretty monolithic party. They all behave the same. They all look the same. It's pretty much a white Christian party."
Dean's larger point, according to the San Francisco Chronicle: "The Republicans are not very friendly to different kinds of people. We're more welcoming to different folks, because that's the type of people we are. But that's not enough. We do have to deliver on things: jobs and housing and business opportunities." As for the brouhaha over his earlier comments, Dean said it was much ado about nothing. "This is one of those flaps that comes up once in awhile when I get tough," he said. "We have to be rough on the Republicans. Republicans don't represent ordinary Americans and they don't have any understanding of what it is to go out and try and make ends meet."
But what's odd about Dean's remarks -- both the "honest living" one and the "monolithic party" one -- isn't that they're unusually "tough": That's to be expected and, given the timidity of the press and a lot of Democrats these days, admired. Rather, what strikes us as strange is that they're a little off the mark. Dean can say that he intended his "honest living" remark to apply only to the Republican leadership, but that's not the way he said the words when he first said them. So is it true that "a lot" of Republicans have never made an "honest living"? Maybe. But it's also true that "a lot" of Republicans -- a lot more Republicans -- spend their lives working just like the rest of us do.
Indeed, one of the central problems facing Democrats now is that working Americans whose economic interests would be better served by a Democratic president are pulling levers and pushing buttons for Republican candidates instead. As Ruy Teixeira noted the other day, exit polls showed that George W. Bush beat John Kerry among white working class voters by 23 points. Teixera didn't make that point in the context of Dean's "honest living" comment, but John Edwards did. While Edwards stressed that he and Dean have been saying "the same thing for years" about Republicans' indifference to the needs of working Americans, he said he that he "can't agree" with Dean's "honest living" remark "since I come from a place where hard-working people, who are better served by the agenda and passion of the Democrats, somehow still vote Republican."
Similarly, although Dean referred to Republicans as a "monolithic party" where "they all look the same," Republicans have made some small gains in winning over minority voters. Bush got nine percent of the African-American vote in 2000; he got 11 percent in 2004. And it appears that Bush improved his standing among Hispanic voters by about four percentage points in 2004. While the Republican National Convention can still come off looking like a segregated event, the challenge for the Democrats isn't that support for Republicans is too white. It's that it's getting a little less so.
It's true that Republicans like George Bush and Bill Frist come from a place of privilege and probably don't have much experience with the concerns of working Americans. And it's true that the Republican Party has become the political arm of the religious right and hasn't done much to help working people of any race or religious persuasion. But it's also true that Dean might be more successful in persuading voters to come back to the Democratic Party -- if that's his goal -- if he were to start speaking with just as much fire but a little more precision about the problems his party actually faces.