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Leading With His Lip

June 12, 2005

Howard Dean has become the Russell Crowe of the Democratic Party. But unlike Crowe, who has been profusely apologizing for beaning a hotel concierge with a telephone in a fit of bad temper, Dean shows no signs of contrition for the intemperate rhetorical blasts that he sent flying in the direction of the GOP last week.

Dean presents a conundrum for embattled Democrats, who have lost control of the White House and Congress. There are two ways for them to think about him. One is that he's a reckless, emotional politician whose fiery remarks will stir up debate and help the Democratic Party. The other is that he's a reckless, emotional politician whose name-calling cheapens the national debate on issues and hurts his own party.

Judging by Dean's preposterous comments about all Republicans being rich and idle, and mostly white Christians to boot, the latter is inescapably the case. You can't be a good salesman if you spend your time insulting prospective customers, in this case people who haven't been voting Democratic.

More responsible Democrats may squirm over the party chairman's unbridled, unscripted and unnecessary remarks, but they do have one benefit: Dean's antics make other leading Democrats seem moderate by comparison. Trouble is, the party doesn't have a real torchbearer these days -- neither Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid nor House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are particularly charismatic -- so this is a rare moment when people might actually look to the party chairman for some leadership.

Dean's latest gaffes suggest that, as the old Soviet phrase had it, he's intent on "heightening the contradictions" between Democrats and Republicans. But it won't work.

Recycling old saws about the GOP being the party of the rich ignores the fact that one of the reasons the Democrats have been faring so poorly in recent elections is that they've lost the white working-class vote. If Dean spent his time pointing to inequitable tax policies that punish the middle class and reward the rich, or dwelling on the costs of restricting stem cell research, that would be one thing. Instead, he is indulging in outdated caricatures of Republican voters.

So far, Dean has done a good job of pulling the party together -- the Republican Party. His counterproductive message is a problem for the Democratic Party. And the fact that the opposition party is in too much disarray to seriously engage the issues is a problem for our democracy. We'd be equally concerned if it were the Republicans who'd turned to their own version of a Howard Dean for leadership.

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