Howard Dean did it again: He touched off a firestorm from within his own Democratic Party with an impolitic, off-the-cuff remark. Last week, talking to a forum of minorities in San Francisco, the Democrats’ national chairman said the Republicans were “pretty much a white Christian party” — a story the San Francisco Chronicle broke under the headline “The Mouth That Won’t Stop Roaring.”

As Karl Rove sat back and laughed his ass off in glee, a parade of national Democratic leaders scrambled to distance themselves from the darling of the party’s grassroots activists. Joe Biden, ranking Dem on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blasted Dean’s remark as “counterproductive,” and said on ABC’s This Week that “Dean doesn’t speak for me with that kind of rhetoric.” Holy Joe Lieberman rather predictably denounced Dean’s comment as “way over the top.” New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson chimed in that “I wouldn’t have made the comments” Dean did, adding, “We all say stupid things sometimes.” Clintonista Congressman Rahm Emanuel, Virginia Governor Mark Warner (who wants to be the presidential candidate of the Democratic right), and a raft of Democratic pundits and consultants joined the anti-Dean wailing.

John Edwards — who is still pursuing the fantasy that he can beat Hillary Clinton for the party’s nomination in ’08 — tried to have it both ways, with an “I was for Dean before I was against him” pirouette worthy of Johnny Ray’s former running mate, which the Washington Post reported, deadpan, this way: “Former vice presidential nominee John Edwards said of Dean at a Nashville fundraiser Saturday night: ‘He’s a voice. I don’t agree with it.’ But Monday, the DNC Web log featured an entry from Edwards’ blog emphasizing their common beliefs. ‘We both agree with this basic truth: this Republican president and this Republican majority are not doing what they should be doing for working people in this country,’ the entry read. ‘Howard and I have been saying the same thing about this for years. Hear that? The same thing. For years.’ ” That Janus-like opportunism by Edwards said more about him than it did about Dean.

Edwards wasn’t the only one talking out of both sides of his mouth. Dean told his home state Vermont’s WCAX-TV that “I’m getting unsolicited calls from people like . . . Nancy Pelosi and others saying they’re supportive.” But there was Pelosi on CNN, saying, “I don’t think [Dean’s remark] was a helpful statement.”

I’ve frankly never understood the enthusiasm of activist liberal Democrats for Dean: He governed as a business-friendly centrist in Vermont, giving state corporate welfare to his campaign contributors, and insisted last year, while he was running for president, that he was a centrist and that “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 that drew guffaws from people not afflicted with Alzheimer’s. And he endorsed Bush’s first-strike doctrine, which said the U.S. had a right to militarily attack anywhere, anytime it wanted to.

But Dean’s unscripted, incautious style has made Deaniacs out of a lot of despairing rank-and-filers tired of the same-old same-old from the cautious bloviating Democratic heads who populate the Sunday chat shows and congregate on CNN’s Inside Politics. He’s certainly a refreshing contrast to his oleaginous predecessor, gazillionaire bagman Terry McAuliffe, who sweated falseness from every pore. When Dean says that “Most Republicans have never made an honest living in their lives,” the activist Dems eat it up — even though, as Democratic polling expert Ruy Teixeira pointed out, Bush won white working-class voters (those without college degrees) by 23 points, and a crack like Dean’s seemed (to them at least) calculated to drive them further into the GOP embrace.

I think the problem is that Dean throws out this red-meat rhetoric because he has no substance. He’s not a well-read man, and the insurgent, anti-war, populist persona Joe Trippi grafted onto the centrist Vermont governor last year was a matter of positioning against the field, not of deep conviction on Dean’s part. Dean has no progressive policy depth, so all he has to fall back on as he tries to rev up the Dems’ troops are these one-liners.

They sound great if you’re starved for in-their-face anti-Republicanism — but where’s the beef? To get to be DNC chair, Dean had to promise that he’d leave policy to the timid Democrats’ congressional leadership. And he’s kept that promise. Example: Just two weeks ago, Marin County Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey forced a vote on her resolution requiring the Bush administration to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. But this common-sense proposal was torpedoed with the help of the House Democratic leadership — Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the supposed “liberal,” and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer both led 79 House Democrats in voting to kill the Woolsey withdrawal resolution — even though the latest Gallup Poll shows that 59 percent of Americans think all or part of the U.S. troops should be brought home from Iraq. But was there a peep out of The Mouth That Roared expressing even mild disagreement with this sellout? Naaaah . . .

Back in the late ’50s, DNC chair Paul Butler — under pressure from the Adlai Stevenson wing of the party — turned the DNC into a nest for fresh, new policies for the Dems, like the ones that later were adopted by the Kennedy administration as the war on poverty, the Peace Corps and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

With the Capitol Hill Dems so inert, and so often voting with big business on things like bankruptcy limits (a boon to the credit-card industry) and with Bush on the war, why not make the DNC once again a place where new, progressive policies can be articulated to help forge another Democratic victory, the nerve center of the fight against the drift to the center? That’s what the small donors Dean is trying to appeal to really want — and it wouldn’t alienate swaths of swing voters the way Dean’s zingers often do. Absent the substance, though, it’s hard to see the shallow, pandering cracks that have elected Dems running away from Dean as anything other than a distraction from the uphill task of bringing what is a distinctly minority party these days back into power.

DOUG IRELAND can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at

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