Dean Takes the Helm of His Struggling Party

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Times Staff Writer

Capping an improbable political comeback, Howard Dean was unanimously elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee on Saturday, accepting the job with a low-key speech that depicted the struggling party as the nation’s voice of fiscal responsibility and social progress.

The former Vermont governor, whose 2004 presidential bid ran aground amid questions about his judgment and temperament, acknowledged that few -- including himself -- could have predicted such a rapid return to national prominence.

But he won the chairmanship the same way he went from dark horse to onetime front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination: by developing an ardent following at the grass roots and tapping widespread contempt for the party’s inside-the-Beltway leadership.


In remarks to a cheering throng of the faithful gathered in Washington for the DNC’s winter meeting, Dean promised to continue his bottom-up approach to politics even as he pledged to work “shoulder to shoulder” with Democratic congressional leaders -- some of whom initially sought to undermine his bid for chairman.

Rejecting talk that the party requires a thorough overhaul of its message and image, Dean said Democrats should not change what they have “always stood for and fought for.”

He described the party’s core principles as “fiscal responsibility and socially progressive values,” and said Democrats simply need to do a better job communicating their views. Toward that end, he pledged to spend much of his four-year term as chairman in the so-called red states that President Bush carried handily in the last two elections.

“We can’t run 18-state presidential campaigns and hope to win,” Dean said, an implicit rebuke of Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who wrote off large chunks of the country in his narrow loss to Bush in November.

Dean’s red-state strategy for Democrats is simple, he said: “Show up.”

His acceptance speech was strikingly subdued for the man who emerged as one of the fieriest speakers of the 2004 campaign, thrilling left-leaning partisans with his lacerating attacks on Bush as well as fellow Democrats. The 20-minute address was tame even compared with the pugnacious speeches he gave while campaigning for chairman.

Dean, 56, assailed Bush’s proposal to restructure Social Security as a “dishonest scheme.” And he said the $2.5-trillion budget the White House unveiled last week brought “Enron-style accounting to the nation’s capital” by failing to include the costs of the war in Iraq and revamping Social Security.


Tellingly, the glancing reference to Iraq was Dean’s only mention of the issue that fueled his presidential bid.

Citing the record deficits the nation has accumulated under Bush, Dean gibed, “Americans are now beginning to see you can’t trust Republicans with [taxpayers’] money.”

But deviating from the style that marked his presidential race, Dean worked off a written text, never raised his voice and abandoned the mocking tone he had often used when referring to Bush.

At a news conference afterward, Dean denied that he had purposely toned down his approach.

Responding to the question, he said: “I’m not a Zen person. It’s hard to answer stylistic questions. I am who I am.... It’s not intentional.”

As he sought the chairmanship, Dean said that, if successful, he would not seek the White House in 2008, and he reiterated that vow Saturday. He ended up the only candidate nominated for the party post and he was selected by acclamation.

Still, he assumes the job facing a good deal more internal skepticism than that easy victory would suggest.


Notably, he lacked the endorsement of such party pillars as organized labor, Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill or Kerry, who remains a leading voice in opposition to Bush.

Dick Harpootlian, a longtime Democratic strategist in South Carolina, spoke for many party leaders in red states when he said, “Dean’s got to prove himself.”

Speaking from Columbia, S.C., Harpootlian said, “Having watched him campaign during the [presidential] primaries, I have serious questions whether he’s suited to do what we need to do, which is not just raise money, not just excite the base, but reach out and expand the base.”

Dean brushed past such criticisms Saturday until a reporter noted that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has said Democrats were indulging a “death wish” by making Dean their new chairman -- a sentiment other GOP leaders have expressed.

“I look forward to proving Newt wrong,” Dean replied with a broad smile.

Dean was by far the best-known candidate when he entered what started as a crowded race to succeed outgoing DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe. But his name recognition was a decidedly mixed blessing; to many, he is still remembered mostly for the shrieking concession speech that followed his disappointing finish in the Iowa caucuses in January 2004.

One by one, however, Dean’s opponents fell away as he systematically courted the small group of party insiders and activists who pick the chairman.


In his speech and comments afterward, Dean was highly deferential toward House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Early in the maneuvering for chairman, Pelosi encouraged former Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana to enter the contest, convinced that his service on the 9/11 commission would bolster the party’s standing on national security issues.

But Roemer, an abortion foe, met fierce resistance from the DNC’s 447 voting members. He quit the race last week -- the last of more than half a dozen hopefuls to give up -- with a blast at what he termed the party’s lack of inclusiveness.

Days before Saturday’s vote, Dean met privately with Pelosi and Reid to pledge his cooperation, and he demonstrated his loyalty Saturday by declining to discuss his opposition to the war in Iraq, even when prodded by a reporter.

The proper place for such talk is Capitol Hill, Dean said, adding that he saw “no need to make announcements on anything I won’t be voting on soon.”

Reid joked about his initial resistance to Dean’s candidacy when he spoke to the DNC meeting on Friday. The senator thanked “all the Democrats who ran for chair -- and all the Democrats I tried to get to run for chair.”


Shortly after Dean’s election, it was announced that his younger brother, Jim, would take over as chairman of Democracy for America, the political action committee the former governor started last year after leaving the presidential race.

Also Saturday, Rep. Michael M. Honda of San Jose was elected one of the DNC’s five vice chairs. Honda, who spent part of his childhood in a World War II internment camp in Colorado, was first elected to the House in 2000.