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January 18, 2005

CAN DEAN BE STOPPED? THE RACE FOR DNC CHAIR (AND AIPAC'S ROLE IN IT)

I wrote the following article for this week's L.A. Weekly:

Can Howard Dean be stopped in the race to elect a new chairman of the Democratic National Committee? That’s the question the party’s establishment has been asking ever since Dean--who’d said he wouldn’t run if he didn’t think he’d have the votes to win--jumped into the contest with a media splash last week to become the seventh announced candidate for party boss.

The establishment’s original candidate, former Indiana Congressman Tim Roemer, came into 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 bullet-proof 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 and the political fundraising 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 needed 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 judgement 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 fundraiser, “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 website 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.

That leaves the man who, as Roemer sinks, has emerged in the last week as the party establishment’s Stop-Dean candidate -- former Texas Congressman Martin Frost. Frost is much appreciated by party insiders for the skill with which he limited 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 fundraiser 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% 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 and defending the war on the floor of the House.

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.” However, Dean has always had an exaggerated reputation as a liberal. 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 has always been infinitely less leftish--and less significant--than the movement which 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 to enter the fray: most frequently 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, 8 for Roemer, 4 each for Fowler, Rosenberg, and Webb, and one lone vote for Leland. (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. Stay tuned.

P.S. on Wednesday afternoon: ABC's political desk reports a new head-count: "Opponents of Dean think he has between 100 and 120 solid commitments — perhaps about 30 to 35 percent of the total vote. The consensus among some advisers to Dean and some other opponents is that Rep. Martin Frost has about 50-60 commitments, or at most about 15 to 20 percent of the total vote.....Enough DNC members could decide to support someone else, and some external event could suddenly refocus the attention on another candidate. But as more and more un-Dean-like DNC members, such as, oh, Southern state delegations and party chairs, support Mr. Dean, the more unlikely any Stop Dean scenario is going to be."

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Comments

Excellent article. Notice how upset the neoliberals get when you mention AIPAC. They run the show, doesn't matter which party it is either and America is slowly waking up to this fact that has been hidden for decades.

Posted by: TimeGone | Jan 30, 2005 5:11:25 AM

Why, in the middle of a very good article, do we get "fat-cat Jews" and "Jewish big money"? What is a “fat-cat Jew”, anyway? Does George Soros qualify? I don’t think much of Israel or AIPAC, and I’d like to see Howard Dean lead the DNC. But these things pale next to ethnic stereotyping. I thought we were beyond that sort of bullshit.

Posted by: Dave Goldman | Jan 23, 2005 6:04:32 AM

I think Steve has it nailed--when you break down the requirements of the Chair, fundraising and media dynamism are the two most important, and no other candidate combines the two as effectively. If the mood of the party is going to be "bitch then capitulate," at least have someone quotable bitching.

Posted by: Torrid | Jan 22, 2005 12:13:53 AM

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