With tensions on Capitol Hill still somewhat raw over a string of provocative remarks, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean is finding a friendly reception from at least one group of Members who on Tuesday encouraged him to keep up his candid approach.
Dean met over breakfast with about 30 Progressive Caucus Democrats to talk about his vision for the party and his ideas for winning back the House, the Senate and the White House.
The meeting was one of many the former Vermont governor has held since taking over the DNC earlier this year but one of most recent to be held after a series of remarks by Dean that drew fire from many Republicans and some Democrats.
In a telephone interview, Dean said there will always be a “few outliers” who go after him, but he characterized his relationships with Hill Democrats as strong and growing.
He said he meets regularly with Democrats in the Senate and the House and will continue to do so as he works to assemble a unified party message.
“In general, I do have pretty solid relationships, and I did before I came here,” he said, noting that he had more House Member endorsements for his 2004 presidential bid than any other candidate. “My job is to energize the grass roots and bring the electoral fight out of Washington, D.C., and into the states. These guys get this and understand that’s how we win or lose.”
As for Tuesday’s sit-down with the Progressive Caucus, the largest Democratic constituency group, Dean may have found his most supportive crowd yet. Members in attendance said that he should not only escape criticism but also should be encouraged to speak his mind. The chairman later held a telephone conference call about Supreme Court nominations with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and some 6,500 Democratic constituents.
Despite the outreach, however, Congressional Democrats are still keeping a watchful eye — and ear — on Dean. One senior Democratic staffer said that fences will only be fully mended once Dean’s actions translate into “more positive than negative.”
“Every day, we hold our breath and hope he doesn’t create a problem that we have to go out and solve,” said the leadership aide.
Dean, however, is trying to keep his focus, telling the lawmakers Tuesday that he wants to develop a message for Democrats that not only defines the party but also is workable for candidates in all 50 states. He said Democrats can no longer focus on their laundry list of issues as their core message but rather will have to break those down into four or five themes that connect broadly with Americans.
“It’s about values and principles, and not general fuzzy ones, but really specific values,” Dean said. “We want the House and Senate membership and leadership to participate in this effort to put back together a national Democratic message so people in Alabama are as comfortable running as Democrats as they are in Maryland.”
The one-time presidential hopeful also tried to enlist Members to hit the radio and television circuit to combat similar conservative efforts and redouble efforts at the grass roots to mobilize voters and grow the party.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey (Calif.), the co-chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus, said Members see eye-to-eye with Dean and his goal of helping distinguish the Democratic Party as the party of reform. She said Dean deserves Democrats’ backing, not criticism, as he tries to move the party forward.
“There’s nothing that we support that he’s going to be at odds with, and vice versa,” Woolsey said. “Members, including myself, complimented him on being open and speaking out and taking a stand for Democratic policies and calling it as he sees it.
“You know, I think people shouldn’t be apologizing for words, but for deeds,” she added. “He speaks his mind, and I encourage him to continue speaking his mind.”
Dean got into hot water early last month for a series of remarks about Republicans’ work habits, religious affiliations and ethical standards that prompted many Democrats, including several Members of the Congressional leadership, to distance themselves from the chairman’s remarks.
Since then, Dean has met several times with Members and leaders, and Tuesday he said that as the DNC chairman he is “trying consciously to reach out to people” and put together a national message for the minority party. He said he understands the party needs to sing from the same song sheet to be successful in coming elections.
“We want them to be in the majority next time, and we’ve got a long way to go to get there,” Dean said.
Rep. Barbara Lee (Calif.), another Progressive Caucus leader, said Dean is initiating a major “party-building effort” and working to ensure Democrats are identifiable and present a message that clearly lays out their values and agenda.
She, too, said Dean is doing a service for the party and should “speak his mind.” She said that the Democratic message has for too long been “muddled” and that the party needs to unify around a clear agenda that separates it from Republicans.
“People want strong leaders,” Lee said. “Gov. Dean is a strong leader. He’s been unfairly criticized. People want to hear from our leadership within the party, especially with the chairman of the party. There are clear points of view and clear differences with Republicans, and he certainly has been very outspoken and clear in making those distinctions.”