WASHINGTON - Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has stopped screaming in the manner that notoriously drove him from contention for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. As Democratic national chairman, he's toned down his rhetoric considerably. But many of his fellow Democrats still are unhappy with him.
Before the annual conference last week of the Campaign for America's Future, the self-styled progressive arm of the party, Mr. Dean disappointed the audience by merely giving the Republicans heck, characterizing them as insensitive to the needs of the country's working class.
A lot of Republicans, he said, "have never made an honest living in their lives."
That was hardly the sort of red meat Mr. Dean fed the Democratic faithful more than a year ago when he essentially was accusing the GOP of getting the country into a war in Iraq on a pack of lies.
But even this mild slap apparently was too hard for some fellow Democrats. Asked about the comment Sunday on ABC's This Week, Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. issued a declaration of independence. "He doesn't speak for me with that kind of rhetoric," said the man from Delaware, who also is known to have a rather loose and biting tongue occasionally. "And I don't think he speaks for the majority of Democrats."
Another 2004 Democratic candidate, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, said a couple of days later at a party fund-raiser in Nashville, Tenn., that Mr. Dean wasn't speaking for him, either. "The chairman of the DNC [Democratic National Committee] is not the spokesman for the party," he said. "He's a voice. I don't agree with him."
Mr. Dean thus is criticized within the party both for being too soft and too tough. The progressives cite a speech he made in Minneapolis in April in which he said of Iraq: "Now that we're there, we're there, and we can't get out." That brought stinging letters to The Nation magazine from Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and former California legislator Tom Hayden.
At the progressives' conference, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, noting Mr. Dean's comment on Iraq, remarked: "It sounded like [Defense Secretary Donald H.] Rumsfeld to me." The progressives also were disappointed in Mr. Dean's passing slap at the Bush administration, saying that "we're in a war because the people who got us there were not truthful to the American people."
Several others at the conference called for the Democratic Party to push for a deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq rather than call, as Mr. Biden has done, for dispatching more U.S. forces to train the Iraqis to fight the insurgents.
But such progressives clearly constitute a minority voice in a Democratic Party that to varying degrees accepts President Bush's position that the United States must pursue the policy of shoring up the Iraqi government until it can defend itself.
Mr. Biden called talk of withdrawal "a big mistake" but said, "We have to stop misleading the American people [on progress in Iraq] so we don't lose their confidence. Tell them it's going to take more time. ... If we leave now, I guarantee you, there will be a civil war."
There is general recognition among Democrats that Sen. John Kerry's ambivalent and ambiguous positions on Iraq probably cost him the presidency. The party remains split, however, over whether more-consistent, outspoken criticism of Mr. Bush's conduct of the war can make the Democrats winners in the 2006 congressional elections, especially if it's Mr. Dean reverting to form and delivering the harsh message.
Mr. Dean is also facing criticism in his role as party fund-raiser. The Hill newspaper here has reported that three major fund-raisers have resigned and has noted that the DNC raised only $18.2 million in the first quarter of the year, compared with $47.6 million by the Republicans. It's enough to make a grown man scream.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.