Once again seeking to capitalize on his outsider status, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s campaign is circulating a memo attacking his opponents for their spotty voting records as they pursue the presidency.
“This is another case of a lot of talk and very little action out of Washington,” said Dean spokesman Jay Carson, who said the missed votes of Sens. John Kerry (Mass.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and John Edwards (N.C.), as well as those of Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), fit into a “spectrum” of issues that illustrate that Washington is not in touch with voters’ concerns.
“Voters very often believe that politicians talk a lot about issues and don’t deliver,” explained Carson.
Kerry’s campaign took strong exception to Carson’s comments, calling them blatantly hypocritical and arguing that Dean was regularly absent from Vermont in 2002, as he toured the country in the early stages of his presidential bid.
“It says a lot about Governor Dean’s priorities when he sticks the taxpayers of Vermont with his exorbitant travel bill and proposes cutting prescription drugs for seniors because the state doesn’t have any money,” said Kerry spokesman Robert Gibbs, referring to news reports in late 2002 that showed the cost of providing security for Dean tripled from 2001 to 2002 as he began to pursue the presidency at the same time the state Legislature sought to trim the budget.
Several other campaigns pointed out that Dean’s vote-watching tactics ape ongoing efforts by the Republican National Committee.
“Dean said he wanted to wage a campaign based on ideas and issues, but instead he is waging a campaign based on the ideas of [RNC Chairman] Ed Gillespie,” said an aide affiliated with a rival candidate.
Rhetoric aside, the attendance records of the four major contenders from Congress have been far from stellar, a regular trend every four years as elected officials take on the full-time job of running for president.
At the top of that list is Gephardt, who has missed 509 out of the 568 roll call votes held in the House since January. That amounts to an absentee record of roughly 90 percent.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), the only other House Member running for president, has missed 6 percent of roll call votes this year. He is not mentioned in the Dean memo.
Steve Elmendorf, a senior adviser to the Gephardt campaign, said that Gephardt’s attendance record hasn’t been a “secret around here.” “He votes when he needs to vote,” Elmendorf explained.
Dean’s campaign takes issue with that contention, arguing that Gephardt has missed at least two crucial votes where he could have made a difference in the final outcome.
Gephardt was absent from an Oct. 17 vote on providing a $1,500 bonus to all military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan that was defeated on a tie vote. On July 25, Gephardt missed a vote on the School Readiness Act that “contained the Bush proposal to dismantle Medicare,” according to the Dean memo. The legislation passed by one vote in the House.
Elmendorf believes the stepped-up criticism of Gephardt’s attendance record is simply a ploy by the Dean campaign to take attention away from a recent poll in Iowa that showed the Missouri Congressman reclaiming the lead there, albeit by a single point.
“Dean is collapsing in Iowa, so they are getting desperate,” Elmendorf said.
The most recent poll in the Hawkeye State showed Gephardt leading Dean 22 percent to 21 percent, a difference within the survey’s margin of error.
Among Senators running for president, Kerry has missed the most votes, not appearing for roughly 57 percent of the 402 roll call votes held in the Senate since the start of the year.
According to the Dean memo, Kerry has missed votes to fully fund the No Child Left Behind Act and all 16 votes on the Homeland Security appropriations bill.
Lieberman trails just behind, missing 210, or 52 percent. Those absences include 36 missed votes on judicial nominees and various votes on Education and Homeland Security appropriations bills, the memo details.
Jano Cabrera, a spokesman for the Lieberman campaign, dismissed the Dean allegations.
“Governing is more about engaging on ideas than bomb-throwing,” he said. “At this point it seems Governor Dean is only interested in the latter.”
Edwards has missed far fewer votes than his two Senate colleagues; he was absent at 122 votes (30 percent) through Wednesday.
His campaign did not return a call for comment.
As several campaigns noted, critics have argued that Dean had attendance problems of his own when he was the top elected official in Vermont from 1991 until 2002.
The travel costs for the police detail that accompanied Dean during his forays into the early primary states amounted to roughly $90,000 in 2002; the previous year the expenses were $29,000, according to a December 2002 Associated Press story.
Dean was also out of the state for more than 60 days during 2002, leaving then-Lt. Gov. Doug Racine (D) to serve as acting governor.
Carson argued that Dean’s past absences from Vermont are not the issue.
“It is not just about absences, it’s about delivering,” he said. “We will put Governor Dean’s accomplishments up against any of the candidates in the field.”
The back and forth on the issue represents the heightened tensions among the presidential candidates with less than 100 days remaining before the Jan. 19, 2004, Iowa caucuses.
During the past several months, Dean has surged ahead of his rivals in fundraising — bringing in roughly $15 million from July 1 to Sept. 30 — and has also moved to the front of the pack in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
His meteoric rise has been due in large part to his positioning as an outsider in a field filled with current Members of Congress.
Earlier this month Dean drew criticism from Capitol Hill for comments comparing Members of Congress to “cockroaches,” saying if elected he would shine a bright light to send them scurrying.
One Democratic strategist suggested that Dean was trying to have it both ways, attacking his opponents for being creatures of Washington, D.C., and then criticizing them when they travel to key primary states.
“Dean is saying two things at once,” the source said. “It’s hard to argue that the cockroaches should go back under the rock.”