Politics & Policy

Dean Disappears

From the screaming chairman to the stealth chairman.

Has anyone else gotten the impression that Howard Dean must have seen his shadow and gone back underground for six more weeks of winter? The selection of the former Vermont governor as Democratic National Committee chairman came off as expected earlier this month, but what was not expected is the extremely low profile he has taken since winning the job.

A DNC spokesman confirmed Tuesday that Dean has still not been scheduled to appear on any national television or radio talk show as DNC chairman–no interviews, in fact, for at least two more weeks.

Dean’s handlers have done everything humanly possible to keep him away from reporters’ questions. At the DNC winter meeting where he was elected chairman, Dean was shuttled out the back door from a “meet the candidates” session ten minutes before reporters were to be allowed entry. He disappeared from his own victory party that Saturday night at Capitol City Brewing Co. after his brief speech, in the first 15 minutes.

Based on a review of transcripts, his last television interview appears to have been a full month ago–with George Stephanopoulos on January 23–before his victory as chairman had become inevitable. At the same time as RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman is interviewing with Judy Woodruff almost every week on CNN, Dean tried to block media coverage of his Portland, Ore. debate on Iraq against Pentagon adviser Richard Perle. Dean’s DNC seems intent on outdoing the Bush White House in media discipline.

The official explanation for Dean’s disappearance is that he needs some time to “settle in” at the DNC before he meets the press. That’s not terribly convincing. First, Dean’s need for acclimation isn’t stopping him from giving speeches in Kansas and Ithaca, N.Y. in the coming week (he won’t have to face reporters at either event), on the heels of his Oregon debate.

Second, such a long period to settle in is not the norm, judging by his predecessor. On February 3, 2001, just moments after his election as DNC Chairman, Terry McAuliffe allowed himself to be interviewed by CNN’s Bob Franken. The next day he debated RNC Chairman Jim Gilmore on Meet the Press, and the two appeared together later that day on Wolf Blitzer’s Late Edition. Within less than a month of taking up his new role as DNC Chairman, McAuliffe gave interviews on Capital Gang, Hannity and Colmes, Inside Politics and CNN’s The Spin Room (Boy, remember that show?).

By contrast, unless he changes his mind, Dean is on course to do no interviews at all in his first month as chairman. This is obviously by design.

The Stealth Chairman

As Dean took the reins as chairman, he faced the dilemma of whether he would bicker with Democratic elected officials about the party’s direction, or else disappoint his more radical supporters by becoming, as most party chairmen do, a lapdog who barks out the party line as spelled out by others. Dean may have found a third way: a “stealth chairmanship.”

As a stealth chairman, Dean avoids both traps. His actions and words need not bear any relation to what Congressional Democrats are doing from the minority, meaning he’s much freer to be himself. Even better, Dean’s net-negative approval rating (38-percent unfavorable to 31-percent favorable in this month’s Gallup poll) will harm the party much less as long as the general public remains oblivious to him.

But the true believers will notice Dean. His very presence at the DNC is supposed to excite the left-wingers who propelled him to small-donor fundraising greatness in 2003 and early 2004. Even as their money continues to pour in and their energy keeps the party’s grassroots ablaze, Dean keeps his low profile, making only private fundraising appeals and addressing only highly partisan Democratic audiences in order to rally the faithful.

Yet the idea of a low-profile chairman comes with its flaws. The Democrats’ greatest problem is that they are currently adrift and without a leader. They lack an effective rallying point, an eloquent spokesman to counter the bully pulpit of President Bush. A chairman who hides from the media cannot address this problem.

Moreover, the Democratic Left must at some point tire of being fooled. How long will they remain satisfied with a Dean chairmanship that has little or no effect on the party’s direction? And it’s doubtful as to whether those small Internet donors will be willing to give as they did for Dean last year, when they believed they could change the Democratic party and the country forever.

It is true that left-wing websites such as Daily Kos (which has evidently raised in the $100,000 range for the DNC this month) are eagerly soliciting contributions to bolster Dean. But many of the Deaniacs who gave–and some really gave until it hurt–learned a hard lesson when they saw their party leaders crush Dean’s campaign in Iowa, and campaign manager Joe Trippi walk away from their shattered dreams with $7 million of their money. They won’t soon forget it.

David Freddoso is a political reporter for the Evans-Novak Inside Report.

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