By JAMES P. PINKERTON
LONG ISLAND NEWSDAY
Newt Gingrich says that the Democrats have a "death wish." As evidence, the former House Speaker cites the election of Howard Dean to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee. But do the Democrats suffer from a death wish -- or is it Gingrich Envy?
Elaine Kamarck, a 30-year veteran of Democratic politics (and occasional writer for Newsday), was among the DNC-ers who voted for Dean on Saturday. "He is going to rebuild and energize the party," she declares. That's for sure. Even without his 2004 "I have a scream" speech in Iowa, Dean was infinitely more interesting than all his Demo rivals combined.
But isn't Dean a left-wing ideologue? "No," Kamarck replies. Asked about the gay controversy, she explains, "Dean was out front on the issue because Vermont was out front on that issue." And it was civil unions in the Green Mountain State, she reminds us, not gay marriage. Indeed, "Dean's support for civil unions as a state's rights option is similar to that of both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney." Of course, Dean is not exactly a conservative. The libertarian Cato Institute gave the Vermonter a "D" in its 2002 grading of the 50 governors' fiscal records. But in the same year, 19 other governors, including nine Republicans, got either "D's" or "F's" from the institute.
But Kamarck insists that the issue is not ideology, but competence -- competence at party building, especially in the 31 red states that Bush carried last year.
Still, it's hard to separate mechanics from message. Washington Democrats, both elected officials and hired guns, have never liked Dean, in part because of the not-invented-here syndrome. That is, they rankle at his track record of grass-roots mobilization, which threatens the comfy world of inside-the-Beltway Democrats. These D.C. donkeys enjoy all the elements of a good life -- except for winning elections. In the past four years, running Georgetown favorites, they have lost two presidential elections and a net of five seats in the U.S. Senate.
Indeed, Dean's DNC candidacy gained impetus after Bush's stirring State of the Union address earlier this month -- because of lackluster performance of the Democrats' top congressional leaders, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.
By contrast, Dean is conversational and crisp. Speaking of Bush's budget proposal on Saturday, he summarized tidily: "This budget does only two things: It brings Enron-style accounting to our nation's capital. And it demonstrates what Americans are beginning to see: Republicans cannot be trusted with your money." Whether or not one agrees with his ideas, Dean states his case in punchy, soundbite-y prose.
Yet Beltway Democrats hate to lose their grip, even if it's a grip on losing. Sen. Joe Biden, another windbag in the Al Gore/John Kerry tradition, said over the weekend of Dean, "No party chairman has ever made a bit of difference in the public perception. ... He's not going to have a policy role." For his part, Dean seems OK with that -- most of the time. "Most of the policy pronouncements are going to be coming from the leadership of the Congress," he declared, "not from me." Note the "most." Gingrich the Republican might not like to hear it, but the figure in politics Dean resembles most is ... Gingrich. Both men are hot-tempered, compelling and, above all else, smart. Beginning in the '80s, Gingrich didn't so much revise the GOP's message as repackage it. The 1994 Contract with America was a masterpiece of politics; it brought the Republicans a majority in the House for the first time in 40 years.
But for all his success as a political tactician, Gingrich failed as an overall leader. He dreamed of the presidency, yet he was forced to witdraw from public life in 1998.
So now to the Democrats, who need a Gingrich of their own to help them retake power. Dean has the smarts for politics but, like Gingrich before him, he lacks the right stuff for the White House. The big question is whether he is smart enough to keep that in mind.
Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service