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In ’06 and Beyond, the ‘Dean Problem’ Could Cut Both Ways

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean is at it again, this time portraying Republicans as lazy, parasitic white Christians. Well, at least he hasn’t accused all GOPers of being convicted felons who are awaiting jail time.

Sorry, but I’m confused. Isn’t it Dean who says that Republicans are trying to divide the country while Democrats are the uniters?

[IMGCAP(1)]Dean’s critics have jumped on him for his comments faster than Red Sox zealots attacking a Yankee fan at Fenway Park. No wonder. If you had to defend the president’s Social Security plan, comment on last month’s poor job growth numbers or discuss House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) corporate-paid junkets, I’m sure you’d prefer to talk about Dean’s dopey comments.

Anyway, Republicans have called on members of Dean’s party to disavow his remarks, and at least one veteran officeholder, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), has had the courage to criticize the chairman of the DNC.

I must admit that I’ve come to like Biden. While critics see him as a grandstander, I can’t help but appreciate it when a Member of Congress says the obvious, even if it proves embarrassing for his party. You can often count on the Delaware Democrat for common sense when others on Capitol Hill are in the middle of a food fight.

Anyway, Democrats are in a major bind when it comes to Dean, though it’s not as if they hadn’t been warned. Dean’s diplomatic skills make John Bolton look like Dean Acheson, yet DNC members selected him as their chairman.

Dean seems to like to say the outrageous, which is OK if you are writing a twice-a-week column for Roll Call or hosting “Imus in the Morning.” But if you are representing your political party to the whole country, you probably should avoid saying inflammatory things that make you look , er — let’s see, what’s the word I’m searching for … oh yes — stupid.

The DNC chairman may think he is being John McCain-like by shooting from the hip. But Dean shoots himself in the foot more often than he hits the target.

Unfortunately for Democratic insiders, most of whom don’t like Dean’s choice of words, they can’t do much about him. The former governor of Vermont remains something of an icon to the liberal left wing of his party, and any effort to push him out the Democratic National Committee’s door would anger the crowd. And Democratic insiders wouldn’t want to anger those guys, would they?

Dean’s only real vulnerability probably is on the financial side. If the party chairman flops as a fundraiser, Democrats of all stripes will turn on him. Everyone from the Democratic Leadership Council on the party’s right to MoveOn and blogger Markos Moulitsas, of Daily Kos, on the left know that winning elections requires cash, and if Dean can’t show them the money, he’s not of much value to anyone in the party.

The party chairman’s trips to states such as Kansas and Mississippi may have made the point that the Democratic Party will compete anywhere and everywhere in the country, but the political reality is very different. Dean isn’t the guy to sell a blue party to red state America, and everyone but Dean knows it.

Dean may well adopt a low profile for a while to ensure that he doesn’t put his stethoscope in his mouth again anytime soon. But he won’t be happy to remain in the shadows indefinitely. He likes to mix it up too much to remain quiet and noncontroversial for too long. So Democratic insiders will need to swallow hard, keep their fingers crossed and pray that Dean doesn’t say too many more impolitic things.

For Republicans, the temptation will be great to try to make everything in the political arena about Dean. They probably should resist that.

Most 2006 and 2008 voters are not likely to be enamored with Dean, but he won’t be on the ballot in either election, no matter how often Republicans invoke his name and use his image. And invoke his name and his picture they surely will. You can bet on it.

Conservatives get a charge out of kicking around Dean, and anyone needing an anti-Dean fix can tune into a conservative talk radio host to hear indignant comments about Dean’s sometimes bizarre comments. But Republicans should remember that elections are never about the chairman of one of the national party committees.

GOP activists and voters would do better to worry about the party’s agenda, when and how they are going to get Social Security off the table so that they don’t get hammered in the midterm elections, and how they are going to keep some of their own lightning rods in a bunker, away from the media.

Dean is good fodder for columnists, late- night comedians and conservative talk radio hosts. But the 2006 elections are more likely to be about President Bush than Dean. At least Democratic candidates have to hope so.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report

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