“We lost an election, not our minds.”
So said one reader of my December 2004 Inside Washington’s Headlines as he let me know what he thought of my suggestion that maybe, just maybe, the Democrats would pick Howard Dean as their leader.
“You Republicans are hoping that Democrats are dumb enough to put (Dean) in charge,” wrote another reader. “You will never get your wish. Just because you can dream doesn‘t mean Democrats will do what you want.” After Dean’s election last month, another reader needed three “expletives deleted” to say that he supposed that I would rub it in.
Best not gloat. I received more negative, outraged, critical and downright angry comments about that article than any other in 2004. I was amazed. I had hit a nerve in suggesting that the Democratic Party’s leaders might pick Dean. Those Democrats who read Inside Washington‘s Headlines were finished – really finished – with their love affair with the blunt Vermont physician.
Why and How?
In politics it is not just what happens but why and how that is important. Something happened and Dean won. That something was retribution. A few years ago, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who represents San Francisco but grew up in a politically powerful and sharp-elbowed family in Baltimore’s Little Italy, wanted to move up the ladder to the leadership of the House Democrats. To prepare the way, she called on her pragmatic political family in Maryland to dispose of one potential rival, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD). Seasoned, highly respected, a natural leader, Hoyer was himself a power in the rough-and-tumble of Maryland politics. The political hit put on Hoyer by the boys from Baltimore was not subtle. Hoyer stepped aside.
As she continued to consolidate power, Pelosi was resisted by Rep. Tim Roemer (D-IN), a moderate, pro-life Democrat. Roemer suggested that Pelosi was too liberal and the Democratic Party needed to move toward the center. But Pelosi had the votes, based upon favors, friendships and fears that went beyond her liberal politics. Pelosi won and perhaps held a grudge against Roemer for the audacity of his opposition. She got her chance a few months ago to “repay” Roemer in the best Baltimore style: she encouraged Roemer to seek the chairmanship but did nothing to aid his cause. She watched him announce his candidacy for chairman and, when he got out there on the political limb, she abandoned him in public statements that discouraged other House Democrats from endorsing him. She did the same with another former House Democrat. Her acid neutrality toward former Rep. Martin Frost (D-TX) sent the message to House Democrats: Stay away from Frost.
Political butcher’s shop
So the Party leaders looked everywhere for someone to stop Dean and all sorts of names were run up the flagpole. Few saluted. Even the Clintons were co-opted and Clinton loyalist Harold Ickes, as shrewd and tough a politico as exists, endorsed Dean at the critical point.
Not lost on insiders was the fact that Pelosi and Senator Hillary Clinton are friends who have a healthy regard for each other’s lethal tendencies. Senator Clinton found this a battle best not fought. Losing was possible and could be deadly. Winning was not worth the risk of creating an enemy. It was over. More acceptable candidates were taken out, one-by-one, almost gangland style. This was not surgery, this was a political butcher’s shop.
And Dean is the beneficiary and is chairman of the Democratic Party.