WASHINGTON — The rapidly escalating war of words between Howard Dean and the Democratic Party's leading centrists is reopening old ideological divides suppressed during Bill Clinton's presidency and raising new fears about Dean's ability to unite the party if he won the nomination for president.
Party centrists were stunned Monday when Dean denounced the Democratic Leadership Council, a group that provided many of the key ideas for Clinton's "New Democrat" agenda, as "the Republican wing of the Democratic Party."
Dean's comments came just days after he delivered a speech widely seen as accusing Clinton of conceding too much ground to Republicans. The sharp verbal volleys from Dean against party centrists may help energize his liberal base as the first primary contests approach next month in Iowa and New Hampshire. But even Democratic moderates who have been sympathetic to Dean's campaign worry he could be pushing the party toward an internal upheaval that would severely erode his ability to compete as a general-election nominee.
Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, a Democratic political action committee, has been as close to Dean as any leading centrist in the party.
But after his latest criticism of the DLC, Rosenberg says, the front runner "has a choice. Is he going to present a new synthesis that incorporates all the best of all the traditions in the party ... or is he going to be the leader of the counterrevolution?"
Added Leon E. Panetta, the former chief of staff under Clinton: "I think he's asking for serious trouble when he attacks Clinton and attacks the DLC. Whether you like their positions or not, the reality is you can't afford to divide the Democratic Party at this point. You've got a tough enough job fighting George Bush."
During a campaign stop Tuesday in Seabrook, N.H., where he received an endorsement from the 1,000-member New Hampshire chapter of United Auto Workers, Dean said he stood by his remarks about the DLC. On Monday, he called the DLC "sort of the Republican part of the Democratic Party ... the Republican wing of the Democratic Party."
"The staff of the DLC has injected themselves into the race because they're supporting other candidates, but I think the membership of the DLC is anxious to take back the White House and understands that we have to be unified to do that," Dean said in Seabrook.
"I thought I was having a little fun at their expense. They've had eight months of fun at my expense, I figured I owed them a day at their expense."
Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, said Tuesday that Dean was joking in his criticism.
Ironically, Dean's swipe at the DLC on Monday came as he also stressed the need for Democrats "to pull together in order to beat George Bush."
Dean's latest remarks threw gasoline on a feud that has been smoldering for months with the DLC, an organization of party centrists founded to reshape the Democrats' message after Walter F. Mondale's landslide defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1984. The group provided many ideas and themes for the 1992 presidential campaign of Clinton, who had served as its chairman just before entering the race.
Tension between Dean and the DLC first seriously emerged early this year when Dean began identifying himself as the representative of "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."
That was a designation liberals sometimes used during the Clinton years to distinguish themselves from centrist "New Democrats" who pushed ideas such as welfare reform, balancing the federal budget, and completing the North American Free Trade Agreement -- all ideas staunchly opposed on the left.
Dean's declaration Monday was more than rhetorical positioning; it also reflected his political strategy.
All year he has argued that Democrats' first priority should be to mobilize their core supporters, such as women's groups, African Americans, unions, and gay rights activists. That inverts the argument from Clinton, first advanced by the DLC in a 1989 study titled "The Politics of Evasion," that Democrats could only win the White House by reconnecting with moderate swing voters because their base no longer constituted a national majority.
Al From, the DLC's founder, and Bruce Reed, the former chief Clinton domestic policy advisor now serving as the group's president, sharply criticized Dean in a memo to party leaders in May that linked him to landslide presidential losers George S. McGovern and Mondale.