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Negative ‘Deanism’ Hurts Democrats’ Rebound Prospects

Polls indicate that the public is dissatisfied with the performance of both the Republican-led Congress and President Bush. But the ability of Democrats to capitalize on it is being hampered by rampant Deanism. [IMGCAP(1)]

“Deanism,” the trademark behavior of Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, is the tendency to attract publicity for name-calling attacks on Republicans while offering almost no positive alternatives for governing.

Dean has been chided by various Democrats for over-the-top statements — that he “hates” Republicans, that they’re “evil,” that many of them don’t work for a living, and that they’re “the white Christian party” — but Deanish critiques are common among Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has called Bush a “liar” and a “loser.” He apologized for saying “loser,” but not for “liar.”

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who’s shrewdly extended her appeal rightward from the party’s liberal base, lapsed back into Deanland last week in New York, charging that “there never has been an administration, I don’t believe in our history, more intent upon consolidating and abusing power to further their own agenda.”

More than the Nixon administration, whose abuses — burglary, wiretaps and attempted subornation of the FBI — have just been revisited with the unmasking of “Deep Throat”? Sen. Clinton knows better: She once worked for the House Judiciary Committee as it considered Nixon’s impeachment.

During debate on Bush’s judicial nominees, various Democrats accused him of pursuing “absolute power” and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) attacked nominee Janice Rogers Brown by asking “does she want, a theocracy? What does [Brown] want to be nominated for? Dictator? Or grand exalted ruler?”

It’s rare for top Republicans to resort to such wretched excess. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) did so in threatening retribution toward judges who refused to keep brain-damaged Terri Schiavo alive. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) accused Democrats of “assassinating” Bush nominees.

But, by and large, it’s Democrats who lose their rhetorical composure. Why? At some level, I think it’s because they reflect what Democratic activists believe — that Republicans, Bush in the lead, really are evil, ill-motivated and dishonest. Republicans, in the main, just think Democratic policies are wrong.

Democrats also go over the top, I think, because they are frustrated at being forced to play defense while the GOP is in control — more or less — of all three branches of government and is setting the national agenda.

It is certainly the duty of the opposition party to oppose, but a smart opposition will also get itself known for proposing compelling alternatives and will avoid offending the swing voters it needs to attract to become the majority.

Dean claims to be trying to extend the Democratic Party’s appeal to red states, but he can’t possibly do so by declaring Republicans “evil” and saying that they don’t work for a living.

As a presidential candidate, Dean attracted more than a half-million new activists and contributors to the Democratic Party, but they weren’t enough either to win him the presidential nomination or get Democratic nominee John Kerry elected.

As a Pew Research Center poll showed, 82 percent of Dean’s adherents call themselves liberal, compared to 27 percent of all Democrats, and 99 percent opposed the Iraq war, compared to 68 percent of all Democrats.

Recent polls indicate an increasing trend on the part of the national electorate to agree that the war was “not worth fighting” — 58 percent in The Washington Post/ABC poll — but there’s no indication that Americans favor immediate withdrawal, as do most Dean adherents (though not Dean himself).

Recent polls suggest that the public is deeply dissatisfied with the job the GOP Congress is doing, offering Democrats a real opportunity to gain traction.

In the ABC poll, Congress approval was only 41 percent. Only 37 percent of respondents said that Bush and the GOP were “making progress on the issues that concern you.” And among those who said no progress was being made, 67 percent blamed Republicans and only 13 percent blamed Democrats.

On the other hand, the approval rating for Democrats in Congress was just 42 percent, the same as for Republicans and just 1 point better than that for Congress as a whole.

President Bush’s rating was 48 percent. In the latest Gallup poll, Bush’s approval was a 47 percent, down 10 points since January. Only 34 percent approved of the way Congress was doing its job, the lowest since 1997.

But if Democrats think that low approval of Congress will significantly increase their ranks in the next election, it’s worth noting that in the months leading up to the November 1994 GOP takeover, Congress approval ratings were in the mid-20s.

All this evidence suggests that what the public wants from Washington is action on the issues that concern it most — the economy, gasoline prices and Iraq. Bush has policies and proposals for dealing with the problems, even if the public doesn’t necessarily like them.

To the extent that Democrats do have alternatives, no one knows about them because they spend so much time going negative, and, going over the top. If there’s one thing that turns off independents and moderates, it’s negative name-calling. It may work in the thick of a campaign, but Deanism is a turnoff for party-building.