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Ancient Woes Resurfacing As Dean Eyes Top Dem Post

As the Democratic National Committee gets set to pick a new chairman, the party is experiencing déjà vu all over again.

Like a replay of the Democrats’ 2004 presidential primary season, the early frontrunner in the DNC race is former Vermont governor Howard Dean. Then as now, a number of other candidates of varying attractiveness have lined up to vie for the post –— this time including Martin Frost, a former Texas congressman who twice headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Simon Rosenberg, head of the centrist New Democrat Network — but none seems to have the star power of the dazzling doctor from Vermont, who leads in endorsements from DNC members.

Once again, Dean’s critics tend to come from the centrist, Bill Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, many boasting ties to Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman. Once again, those critics are trying to torpedo Dean’s candidacy by highlighting some comments that Dean made during the primaries about Israel and national security — such as a statement about how “we ought not to take sides” in Middle East peace negotiations — that Dean spent much time and money repudiating. Once again, the critics are warning darkly that if Dean were to succeed, “a lot of mainstream, middle of the road, centrist Jewish Democrats would be very turned off and concerned and would be left wondering whether they have a home in the Democratic Party,” in the words of Jay Footlik, who served as Lieberman’s and then John Kerry’s campaign liaison to the Jewish community.

The question is an important one for the 447 DNC members as they prepare to vote for their new chairman February 12. Not for nothing are American Jews called a “pillar” of the Democratic Party. Jews gave about 75% of their vote to Democratic nominee Kerry this past November, despite a strong drive on the part of the Bush campaign. Even more so, while Jews constitute just a little more than 2% of the population, they provide a disproportionate share of the contributions for Democratic committees and candidates — more than half, by the calculation of some operatives. It is a prime objective of Republicans to separate Democrats from this cash.

“The prospect of Howard Dean’s chairmanship must have folks at the Republican Jewish Coalition licking their chops,” said Kenneth Baer, a Democratic strategist who is supporting Rosenberg. While acknowledging that Dean’s campaign brought many innovative fund-raising and organizing techniques into the party, Baer contends that Dean’s statements on Israel and “the other crazy statements he’s made… should be a disqualifier.”

“He’s just flat-out wrong on foreign policy,” Baer said. “The pro-Israel community would be very worried if Dean became DNC chair and the Republicans would exploit it.”

Consultant Dan Gerstein, another Rosenberg supporter who worked for Lieberman, echoed Baer’s comments.

Consultant Dan Gerstein, another Rosenberg supporter who worked for Lieberman, echoed Baer’s comments.

“We’re in a real hole regarding national security,” he said of the Democrats. “The last thing you want to do is keep digging.” Dean “made multiple comments” on Israel and national security during the primary that “call into question whether he’s the person to lead the party,” Gerstein averred, adding that in his view, Dean’s campaign-era comments showed he was “pandering to the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel wing of the Democratic Party.”

One of Dean’s top backers, as he was during the primary, is Steve Grossman, a former DNC chairman who also once served as president of the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Grossman waved away the criticism of Dean, saying it was reminiscent of the barbs lobbed at the late Ron Brown when he ran for DNC chairman in 1988. “Party chairs do not make foreign policy,” Grossman said, adding that Dean nonetheless favors a “robust” one.

Grossman said that Dean “recognizes he misspoke himself on several occasions” and regretted those statements. In the end, however, Dean “does not want to lose nor does he expect to lose the overwhelming support of the Jewish community” and would spend time rebuilding that relationship.

Even as Dean’s critics hammer him for his past statements, his backers cite his rhetoric as being one of the doctor’s main draws.

“It seems to me that Governor Dean combines in exactly the correct proportions the rhetorical and inspirational and visionary qualities required by a political party in need of direction with the sound and sensible practical skills that he exhibited for many years as a successful governor,” Dean adviser Jim Jordan wrote in an e-mail. “He can reform us and transform us and lead while building od practical institution-building work done over the past few years by [current DNC Chairman Terry] McAuliffe.”

Dean’s image problems are broader than his problems with the pro-Israel community. According to a survey cited last week by The Wall Street Journal, only 27% of Democrats view the Vermonter positively, down from 48% a year ago. Whether the centrists’ criticisms hurt Dean, however, is likely to depend on whether they’re rammed home by Dean’s opponents: Those men, for now, are declining to wade into the fray and attack Dean. Tom Eisenhauer, a spokesman for Frost, said Frost’s campaign “is based on his vision for reforming the DNC and on his experience as the only candidate who has proven himself as the trustworthy manager, winning strategist, innovative organizer and disciplined spokesperson we need to rebuild the party.” He added that “America’s special relationship with Israel was always very important to Congressman Frost, and that will not change when he is DNC chair.”

Rosenberg, in a statement to the Forward, said: “I believe that it’s up to the members of the DNC to judge the candidates’ records. It’s up to Howard Dean to explain his statements. I have always believed that the U.S.-Israel relationship is based on a bedrock foundation of our shared values, shared strategic interests in fighting terrorism, and shared commitment to freedom and democracy. A strong U.S.-Israel relationship is not a Republican policy or a Democratic policy; it’s an American policy that both parties should support.”

Frost, who lost his congressional seat as a consequence of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s contentious redistricting plan in Texas, is one of two Jewish candidates in the DNC race, the other being former Ohio Democratic Chairman David Leland. (Rosenberg has Jewish heritage on his father’s side.) Other candidates included South Carolina political strategist Donnie Fowler; Tim Roemer, a former Indiana congressman and 9/11 commission member, and Wellington Webb, a former mayor of Denver.

For now, however, the criticisms appear to have some bite. Some pro-Israel Democratic donors already are declaring their pique at the possibility of a Dean chairmanship.

“If Dean becomes head of the DNC it will demonstrate that the party, once again, has learned entirely the wrong lesson from its defeat, has chosen a direction which does not understand the dimensions or the nature of the national security threat posed by fundamentalist Islam and which will ensure that status for at least a generation,” said Michael Granoff, a New Jersey private equity manager who gave some $12,000 to Democratic candidates during the 2004 cycle. “I will have no choice but to leave the party as such.” Granoff said he would re-register as an independent and will reserve his political giving for candidates “who properly understand” the Islamist threat.

Other Jewish Democrats, however, take a longer view.

“Would some Jews in the pro-Israel community cut their contributions to the DNC? Yes, that’s what I’m hearing,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York Democratic strategist who takes no side in the DNC fight. “But they don’t have anywhere to go. The sky is not going to fall for Jews if Howard Dean is DNC chair.”


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