Can Howard Dean be stopped in his bid to become the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee? That's the question the party's establishment has been asking since Dean who'd said he'd run only if he thought he had the votes to win jumped into the contest with a media splash last week. Instantly he became the front-runner in the field of seven candidates for party chief and prompted the establishment to embark on an Anybody-but-Dean movement.
It may not be easy for the center-right leaning power elite in the party to bar the route to the doctor from Vermont. The establishment's original candidate, former Indiana Congressman Tim Roemer, entered the race with the puissant backing of the Democrats' two Congressional chiefs Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The handsome and articulate Roemer got a lot of face time on the tube during the 9/11 Commission hearings, where he proved himself an aggressive questioner and burnished his image on national security the latter, the party elite thought, made him a bulletproof winner and a great public face for a party still reeling from its November defeat, in which post-9/11 security hysteria played a major role.
But Roemer has been effectively torpedoed by a bizarre alliance a double-whammy, slash-and-burn lobbying campaign by two of the party's most influential interests: the women's groups, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The women's groups, led by NARAL Pro-Choice America and the political fund-raising champs at EMILY's List, have targeted Roemer's extensive anti-abortion voting record, and his declarations that the party should show more "tolerance" for abortion foes and needs to eliminate its "moral blind spot" on late-term abortions. (This record has many in the party, including a lot of House members facing re-election, privately questioning Pelosi's judgment in endorsing him.)
AIPAC the powerful, treasury-rich pro-Israeli lobby, now embroiled in accusations that it was at the center of a spy ring within the Pentagon on Israel's behalf has been brandishing a list of what it claims are 22 "anti-Israel" Congressional votes by Roemer, who's been a critic of the $6 billion plus in U.S. aid to Ariel Sharon and his "Wall of Shame." Many of the party's Jewish big contributors have become even more knee-jerk supporters of Israel's no-compromise conservative government since 9/11. "The DNC's biggest source of large-donor money is from fat-cat Jews," says a veteran Democratic fund-raiser, "and AIPAC's threat elect Roemer and we'll shut down your Jewish big money has been incredibly effective."
A gaggle of little-known center-right postulants for the DNC post have failed to catch fire. Donnie Fowler, a callow technocrat from North Carolina (his biggest credential is having managed the ignominiously failed presidential campaign of Gen. Wes Clark), has a Web site featuring a plug for him that begins, "He loves God." Simon Rosenberg, a former staffer for the center-right Democratic Leadership Council, runs the New Democrat Network, the DLC-oriented PAC (some would say it's a DLC front group), and has been relentless in attacking Roemer, whom he saw as the man to beat (a negative campaign that has alienated many committee members). Wellington Webb, a lackluster former Denver mayor and the only African-American in the race, hasn't even generated much enthusiasm among black elected officials. And former Ohio party chairman David Leland is so unknown that some DNC members I talked to didn't even know he's in the race.
As Roemer sinks, the man who's emerged in the last week as the party establishment's Stop-Dean candidate is former Texas Congressman Martin Frost. Frost is much appreciated by party insiders for the skill in limiting his party's losses when he ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the '96 and '98 election cycles, during which he proved himself an adept fund-raiser and a master of organizational detail and he's got a powerful lobbying force in the Democratic House members whose seats he helped save. Frost was deprived of his House seat last year after a gerrymander engineered by House Majority Leader and fellow Texan Tom "The Hammer" DeLay. Frost, usually labeled a party moderate, doesn't have some of the heavy baggage that has crippled Roemer: He's won a 100 percent voting-record approval on abortion from NARAL, and as only the second Jew ever elected to Congress from Texas and a consistent supporter of aid to Israel who's also voted for every pro-Israeli, anti-Arab resolution that came to the House floor he's more than acceptable to the AIPAC crowd. A fairly reliable liberal on economic issues who has opposed all of Bush's tax cuts, Frost is a hawk on foreign and military policy. A supporter of the Star Wars missile defense system who has voted for bloated military budgets and against cuts at the Pentagon (Texas gets a lot of military-industrial complex contracts), Frost was a big supporter of the war in Iraq, voting to shred the Constitution by approving the blank check to Bush for war
The mood of the Democratic establishment these days is aggressively centrist, and Frost's candidacy could be boosted by Democratic governors who have an inordinate influence over docile DNC members from their states like Michigan's Jennifer Granholm, an erstwhile progressive who last month declared the party needs "to push an agenda that is centrist and that speaks to where most people are."
It doesn't seem to matter that Dean's reputation as a liberal is exaggerated. In the lead-up to his DNC candidacy, Dean reiterated in interviews that he was a "centrist" who had governed as one in Vermont; and last year he told my colleague David Corn, "I really have a healthy mistrust of the Left as well as the Right." After his defeat in the Democratic primaries last year, he ran away from his opposition to the war in Iraq, telling MSNBC's Chris Matthews, "I never did base my campaign on the war" an attempt to rewrite history which drew guffaws from people not afflicted with Alzheimer's. Dean was infinitely less leftish and less significant than the movement that crystallized around him. But Dean's shoot-from-the-lip, unscripted style scares the bejesus out of party powerbrokers and Democratic consultants. And even Joe Trippi, who made a lot of money from TV ad buys when he managed Dean's presidential campaign, showed he didn't stay bought when he endorsed another candidate (Rosenberg) for the DNC job. There's even a move afoot to persuade a fresh Stop-Dean centrist candidate with more charisma than the dull and wintry Frost to enter the fray: most often mentioned is ex-Senator Bob Kerrey, another ex 9/11 Commission member and current president of New York's New School.
Even so, Dean is the man to beat. At a regional forum for the candidates for DNC chair in Missouri on Saturday, it was Dean whose every sally drew enthusiastic applause from those in attendance. And a poll for The Hotline of 187 of the 447 DNC members released late last week showed a clear Dean-Frost contest with a first ballot choice of 58 for Dean, 30 for Frost, eight for Roemer, four each for Fowler, Rosenberg and Webb, and one lone vote for Leland, with the rest undecided. (But add all the votes in this poll for the other centrist candidates to Frost, and he edges out Dean.) The DNC meets February 12 to make its choice.
Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/direland/.