Democrats' chief faces discontent within party
New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON — The turmoil in the Democratic presidential race has presented a sharp test of Howard Dean’s low-profile approach to leading the Democratic National Committee, bringing calls from many Democrats for him to take a more aggressive role in defusing the threat of a protracted and divisive nominating fight.
After months in which he was largely absent from public deliberations about how to avert a risk to the party’s hopes of taking the White House in November, Dean stepped forward last week to say he wanted the contest resolved by July 1 and for Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama to tone down their attacks on one another.
Yet three years after he won election as the party chairman by running largely as an outsider, it is not clear that Dean has the political skills or the stature with the two campaigns to bring the nominating battle to a relatively quick and unifying conclusion.
Indeed, 24 hours after he made his remarks, Clinton said she intended to keep fighting for the nomination through the summer, if necessary, an unmistakable rebuke to Dean, who has never had good relations with the Clintons.
In an interview, Dean said he was trying behind the scenes to pave the way to a smooth convention in Denver this summer, suggesting he has had private conversations with both campaigns.
Dean and his aides said they were assembling resources — voter lists, political organizations and polling on vulnerabilities of Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee. Beyond that, Dean and other Democrats argued that with the party so divided — and in the midst of a fight between two outsized political figures — there were limits to what he could or should do.
"I’m making calls all the time to people," he said. "I’ve spoken to a great number of leaders who are not aligned. The operative thing here is let the voters get to have their say before the Washington politicians have their say."
Still, senior officials in both campaigns said that they had heard rarely from Dean on such matters as the tone of the campaign, how the contest might be brought to an end, and what to do about seating delegations from Michigan and Florida, the subject of a bitter and potentially debilitating debate between the Clinton and Obama campaigns. The chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, Karen Thurman, said she could not recall the last time Dean had called her to try work out the dispute; she and other Florida Democrats are meeting with Dean on Wednesday to try to convince him to agree to some compromise.
A number of Democratic Party leaders, while offering sympathy for Dean’s plight, said it was urgent for Dean to take a more assertive role in trying to restore peace to the party. Several suggested that Dean — who has sought to build a legacy by expanding party operations to all 50 states — risked having his tenure as party leader remembered for a traumatizing loss in a year where most Democrats think victory should be easy.
"I think he should be talking to governors and Al Gore and John Kerry," said Donald Fowler, a former Democratic Party chairman who is supporting Clinton. "I think he should be convening almost daily conversations with people — including the campaigns — trying to reach a solution."
"If I were a chair, I would be a little more public in what I was doing and suggesting," he said. "The DNC chair rarely has an opportunity to do stuff, but this is one of those occasions."
Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee drew attention last month when he proposed his own solution: Having the elected Democratic officials and party leaders known as superdelegates convene after the voting is done on June 3 to resolve the fight. Bredesen said he acted in part because he saw no evidence of Dean or other Democratic leaders trying to resolve the situation.
"What I try to do is when I see a problem to step up," Bredesen said. "I think the party needs to take a hand in this thing." ‘
Dean, a reserved former governor of Vermont, goes home most weekends and spends most of his weekdays on the road. When he is in Washington he stays at a hotel. His approach and style offer a sharp contrast to a string of big-shoulder, high-profile party chairman — such as Terry McAuliffe or the late Ron Brown — who rose through the party ranks and were fixtures at the parties, fundraisers and Washington restaurants that make up this city’s political culture and where much of the political conversation takes place.
Some Democrats said that they thought Dean was wise in standing back in the presidential race, saying that nothing could be done until tensions between Clinton and Obama were resolved.
"I honestly think it’s laying too much at his door, laying too much on his plate," said Steve Grossman, a former chairman of the national party and a prominent supporter and friend of Dean. "He truly only has limited impact on this despite peoples’ sense that a party chair can wave a magic wan and make it happen. I know other people will disagree with that."
"As a former chair, I have to acknowledge that I don’t think any former chair has in my memory gone through a period of time that is as complex as this," Grossman said. "Howard has been scrupulously nonpartisan in terms of all his activities in dealing with this campaign."
Dean’s allies argued that his call for the fight to be settled by around July 1 — after the last primaries in early June — was providing a rallying point for other party. "I would hope there would be a resolution of the contest before July," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who will preside over the convention as chairwoman, said Tuesday.