The only problem I had with Howard Dean becoming DNC Chair was that he had a pre-sold narrative. Establishment media, helped along by the right-wng noise machine, had already tarred him with the brush of an out-of-control wild man with a big mouth. Well, he does have a big mouth (not that that's a sin), and when he opened it, no matter what he said it would be construed in the worst possible way, sticking to the guidelines of the pre-sold narrative. In other words, entire paragraphs of a speech like this get dismissed:And it wasn't enough for the president to try to wreck the public pension system that we had. It wasn't enough for him to try to turn over Social Security to the same people who brought us Enron -- his good friends and political contributors -- that wasn't enough. Now we find out that under this president's watch, private pension plans have been grossly underfunded. What does this president want? Don't Americans deserve, after a long life of work, don't they deserve a retirement with dignity and security? I think that they do. (Cheers, applause.)
This week the Labor Department estimated that in 2004 underfunding of pension plans grew to $450 billion. Sixty percent of companies take advantage of outdated accounting rules to avoid making annual contributions. The president wants to take away our Social Security, and then he's going to take away the private pension plans too? What does he think ordinary Americans live on after they get to be 65 years old? We need a president who understands working people in this country, and we will have one after 2008. (Cheers, applause.)
However, I said that we were not simply going to criticize the president. We were going to make some positive suggestions as well. Here's what I think Democrats need to stand up for. We need to have pension portability so that pensions, as we move from job to job to job, the pensions follow us, they don't stay in the company. (Cheers, applause.) That great Democrat Jim Jeffords has been introducing this for 15 years. (Laughter.) George Bush has had his chance to fix the pension programs in this country. He has failed to do it. We need a new president and a new Congress who will fix the private pension plans. (Cheers, applause).
We ought not to allow people like Ken Lay to loot the pension plans of America while their companies are going down. Pension plans ought not to be controlled by companies. They ought to be controlled by the people who those pensions belong to, that's the working people of America. (Cheers, applause). Enron began around the time the president took office. Forty thousand Americans lost their pensions; another tens of thousands, just last week when the courts took away the United Airlines workers' pensions. This is a serious problem. The president has had his time; he has done nothing. Let the Democrats try to fix the pension program. We have a positive plan with portability and independent control outside these corporations who abuse the money. This is stealing to let pension plans go down. That money does not belong -- (cheers, applause) -- that money does not belong to these companies who are bailing themselves out of bankruptcies; it belongs to the people who they promised it to in their contract. It has been set aside. We want these pensions in America to be independently run so that they are not looted in the throes of bankruptcy while CEOs make $30 million and $40 million a year. That is wrong. (Applause.) They have had their chance.
And instead, we get "In a speech today, Howard Dean said that Republicans have never worked a day in their life." Soundbite culture (the average bite on the nightly news has decreased from 43 seconds to 8
over the last 35 years) demands that lines get pulled out of their context. Here, if you're interested, is the context:"I think, frankly, we ought to have voting on -- either make the Tuesday a holiday or else move it to another day where people don't -- (cheers, applause) -- can get out and vote. You -- (applause continues) -- you know, the idea that you have to wait on line for eight hours to cast your ballot in Florida -- there's something the matter with that. You think people can work all day and then pick up their kids at child care or wherever, and get home and then have a -- still manage to sandwich in an eight-hour vote? Well, Republicans, I guess, can do that, because a lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives. (Light applause.) But for ordinary working people, who have to work eight hours a day, they have kids, they got to get home to those kids, the idea of making them stand for eight hours to cast their ballot for democracy is wrong. We ought to make voting easier to do. Mail -- Oregon has got it right. (Applause.)
Republicans are welcome to take offense, but I see a throwaway joke in the midst of a substantive discussion about voting. Working people, actually any people, shouldn't have to wait 8 hours or more in line to vote. The states where this was most prevalent were Ohio and Florida, under Secretaries of State who were also co-chairs for the Bush campaign.
I didn't know you couldn't tell jokes in America anymore. Wasn't this the stated, open strategy of the Republicans in dealing with Kerry? Isn't that how we got 'Purple Heart' Band-Aids
and "He looks French" and the windsurfing ad? To think that the GOP used to be the freewheeling party that railed against "political correctness." Actually, I was right there with them at the time. But when somebody attacks them? Waa waa waa, you're being mean!
Republicans are also welcome to think that Dean is the greatest thing to GOP majority dominance since sliced bread. His pre-sold narrative, which lends itself to controversy, certainly helps take the heat off of what has been a disastrous year for the GOP. And having senior Democrats criticize the party chair in public doesn't do anything for the self-image (haven't you heard of a back channel, Joe Biden?). Meanwhile, under the radar, money is going to long-ignored states, more money has come in than any off-year cycle in history, and the 50-state strategy is being pursued at the grassroots.
It's funny, because I remember fellow Dems getting mad that Dean was conspicuously silent during the first quarter of the year, and my thoughts were, "Why should he have to say anything? He's in an infrastructure job." Talk about careful what you wish for. Dean talks tough and there are actually benefits to that, in that it helps draw distinctions between the parties. It's going to be impossible to reverse the pre-sold narrative, however, so a shift in focus (back to the under-the-radar, grassroots, tactical work) would help. Nobody gets to tell me to shut up, however, so I don't get to tell anyone else.