Democratic Party boss Howard Dean and a largely sympathetic audience of Senate Democrats on Thursday brushed off the uproar over his comments about Republicans and promised to turn public attention back to issues like Social Security.
“We’re not going to let the Republicans set the agenda and to be quite honest we aren’t going to let you set the agenda,” Dean told reporters after a private meeting at the Capitol with Senate Democratic leaders, calling the fallout over his comments “a media circus.”
After lunch with the party’s full Senate caucus, which senators described as “frank” and “largely positive,” most Democrats said they were willing to give Dean some leeway.
“It’s a room full of people who have all misspoken. Every single one of us have stuck our foot in our mouths at one point in our public careers,” Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin said of the lunch meeting with Dean.
“It isn’t as though we’re looking at the guy and saying ‘I don’t know how you can make that mistake.’ We’ve all made that mistake,” said Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.
Republicans and some Democrats have jumped on Dean, known for fiery rhetoric during his failed 2004 White House run, for a series of recent comments.
On Monday in San Francisco Dean said Republicans were “pretty much a white, Christian party.” Last week Dean told liberal activists that Republicans “never made an honest living in their lives.” Dean later said he was referring to Republican leaders.
Some Democrats, including several potential 2008 presidential contenders, have distanced themselves from Dean since his comments. Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska said he told Dean he was concerned about any divisive statements and that he needed Republican support to win re-election in his heavily Republican state.
“He took it under advisement,” Nelson told reporters. Asked what Dean specifically said, Nelson responded: “He said ‘Thank you.”‘
Senate Democrats said the former Vermont governor was still learning in his new role.
“He’s very new as a Democratic Party chairman, I think you have to give him a chance,” said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.
Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, also a former party chairman, said Dean’s fellow Democrats were not helping him by parsing his statements and rushing to distance themselves.
“You don’t hear our friends on the other side engaging in this kind of thing,” Dodd said.
Democrats said Dean’s critics were trying to draw attention away from their failure to overhaul Social Security, save dwindling jobs or halt rising gas prices. “The right wing has got the agenda moving. It’s all about Howard Dean,” Durbin said.
“There isn’t a single person, whether it’s any of us in this room, or Gov. Dean or (Republican National Committee Chairman Ken) Mehlman, who haven’t misspoken,” said Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid.
“We’re going to continue to talk about a positive agenda no matter how much people talk about other issues,” Reid said.
Rep. Roy Blunt, the No. 3 House Republican, accused Democrats of a political two-step, with Dean throwing “the most below-the-belt political punches” in recent memory while “leading Democrats tell the American people that they don’t agree with the nasty rhetoric after each Dean cheap shot.”