A Jewish Republican group greeted Howard Dean’s election to chair the Democratic National Committee this week with an ad campaign seeking to depict him as a supporter of terrorism.
The group, the Republican Jewish Coalition, placed full-page advertisements in the Washington newspaper Roll Call and in Jewish weeklies around the country, featuring a large picture of Hamas members decked out in costumes resembling suicide bombers. Above the photo, referring to a long-recanted September 2003 quote from Dean, is the statement: “DNC Chairman Howard Dean Says, ‘It’s not our place to take sides.’”
Beneath the photograph, the ad features 2003 quotes from Democrats, including Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who criticize Dean’s remark.
At the time of the original flap, Dean responded to critics by stating that he meant America needed a president who would be seen as an honest broker by both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as Bill Clinton had been, and not that he opposed America’s alliance with Israel.
Jewish Democrats replied to this week’s Republican ad with a catalog of other Dean statements from before and after the 2003 quote, in which the former Vermont governor repeatedly endorsed America’s special relationship with Israel and called for tough action against Islamic terrorism and regimes that support it.
In an October 2003 speech to the Arab American Institute, Dean said, “I defend the Israelis’ right to defend themselves.”
The National Jewish Democratic Council called the Republicans’ anti-Dean ad a “vicious smear campaign.” It said the ad campaign “dangerously politicizes support for Israel, threatening the crucial legacy of bipartisan support for Israel.”
The Democratic council’s executive director, Ira Forman, predicted the Republican ad would backfire. “It helps us when you go over the top and put a picture like that,” he said.
The anti-Dean advertisement is the latest in a series of apparent Republican attempts to link Democrats to terrorists and terrorism supporters in hopes of weakening the party’s overwhelming Jewish support. During last year’s presidential campaign, the Republican parties of Florida and Ohio sent mailings to Jewish households with a picture of John Kerry between pictures of the late Yasser Arafat and former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohammed, who is known for his antisemitic speeches. “Two infamous foreign leaders have stepped forward from the shadows to endorse John Kerry,” the mailing said.
In Florida, Republicans printed and displayed stickers and banners claiming, inaccurately, that “Arafat endorses Kerry.” The then-ailing Palestinian chairman never had expressed a preference for any candidate, but his aides had criticized President Bush for inattention to the peace process and expressed a wish for a different administration.
The strategy of linking Democrats did not appear to influence Jewish voting. Exit polls indicated that Jews in Florida and elsewhere gave about 75% of their support to Kerry this past November.
Even so, Republicans seem intent on repeating the gambit. Just this week, the chairman of the New York State Republican Committee, Stephen Minarik, greeted Dean’s accession by calling the Democrats “the party of… Lynne Stewart and Howard Dean.” Stewart, a New York lawyer and a self-described radical, was convicted this month of supporting terrorism by passing messages from her client, Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, to his followers. Rahman was convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Some senior Democrats responded with annoyance to the Republicans’ efforts to associate their party with terrorists. “No American political figure I know of — Democrat or Republican — supports terrorism or suicide bombers, and to try to suggest otherwise is irresponsible,” said Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The anti-Dean advertisement drew criticism from some Jewish community leaders considered sympathetic to the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism policies. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called the ad inaccurate and “ill advised.”
“To make it accurate, it should say ‘said,’ because [Dean] doesn’t say it now,” Foxman told the Forward. He went on to question why the Jewish Republican group did not simply highlight the recent efforts of President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to promote the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Former DNC chairman Steve Grossman, a onetime president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, who chaired Dean’s unsuccessful presidential bid, said that Dean’s 2003 language stemmed from the rookie candidate’s inexperience in foreign affairs. He said the Jewish Republicans were “dredging up language long since clarified” in hopes of “driving a wedge” between Dean and Jewish pro-Israel donors.
Dean supporters frequently noted during the campaign that the former governor is married to a Jewish woman and that their two daughters are being raised as Jews.
Grossman likened the attack on Dean to a campaign launched 15 years ago against the late Ron Brown, when he was elected DNC chair. “It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now,” Grossman said. “Just as Ron Brown was one of the greatest friends of Israel as chairman, Howard Dean will be one of the staunchest friends of Israel as chairman.”
The executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Matt Brooks, defended his group’s advertisement, insisting that it portrayed Dean’s stance fairly. “Howard Dean said this in the context of a terrorist war,” Brooks said, arguing that images of Palestinian militants encouraging suicide bombings, like the one included in the ad, demonstrate why “we should all be outraged” by Dean’s remark.
Brooks dismissed the idea that Dean had recanted or that the controversial ad was inaccurate. “Howard Dean took back his quote after he got a firestorm of criticism and was called to the carpet by leaders of his own party like Lieberman and Pelosi,” Brooks said. “He can retract it all he wants, but that’s just the politician talking.”
Brooks acknowledged that the ad only featured half of Dean’s quote, but said the full remark should be just as disturbing. “We didn’t print the rest of the quote, which is you don’t stop talking because of terror,” Brooks said. “That’s exactly what Howard Dean is saying.”
The current president of Aipac, Bernice Manocherian, released a statement congratulating Dean on his election, saying the group is confident the Democrat “will carry on the party’s deep and abiding commitment to a strong and unshakable relationship between the United States and Israel.”
Dean was also congratulated by the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, Kenneth Mehlman, former political director of the Bush White House, who called Dean to wish him well and pronounced him a “strong leader for his party.”