The conduct of Senate Democrats during judiciary committee hearings into the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Samuel Alito not only failed to make a significant dent in the nominee’s chances but also caused long-simmering tensions between party leaders to boil over into the open. Sources have confirmed to this reporter that Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, long considered the party’s most volatile member, saw the performance of several senators as a direct challenge to his authority. Dean is said to have bristled at what he saw as pallid attempts at the kind of deranged partisan hackery that the former Vermont governor has specialized in since taking the national stage, telling one associate angrily, “Those clowns are trying to work my side of the street!”
In an acrimonious phone call to Senator Joseph Biden, Dean mocked Biden’s long-winded, intellectually incoherent questions for Alito as ineffective. “It’s taking you an entire week to capsize your presidential hopes for ’08. It’s been done before and done better by yours truly!” Dean shouted at one point. Recalling the night of the 2004 Iowa caucuses, the DNC head drew an unflattering comparison with his ability to cause his own presidential campaign to self-destruct in a mere matter of minutes. “A couple of nonsense syllables like ‘Eeeyargh’ screamed at the top of your lungs are worth half an hour of that blathering about your Irish-American background, how you hate Princeton and Dianne Feinstein’s eyeglasses any day of the week. It’s idiosyncratic, sure, but who’s going to think you’re a raving lunatic after that? No one, that’s who!” Dean reportedly yelled, adding that Biden was “playing in the big dog’s yard now” as he slammed down the phone. A chastened Biden was noticeably more verbose and self-aggrandizing the next day in an obvious attempt to achieve Dean-like levels of being simultaneously off-putting and deliriously wrongheaded. It was too little, too late. Watching on a television in his office, Dean shook his head, saying at one point, “I think it may be time to take this bunch to school.”
Striking a somewhat more conciliatory tone in a meeting with several committee members at DNC headquarters later that afternoon, Dean offered guarded praise to Ted Kennedy for his recent attempts at intellectual incoherency: referring to Alito as “Alioto”; expounding on the “Goldwater presidency.” Still, the DNC head insisted, more could be done to bring Kennedy’s rhetoric up to what Democratic observers consider to be the Dean gold standard. “Dean pointed out how he himself was willing to definitively pass judgment on Alito as being ‘ethically tone-deaf,'” confided a source who was in the room. “By itself, that’s not very impressive. But then the chairman detailed how that comment plays out against a backdrop of his prior comments about Osama bin Laden, refusing to pronounce him guilty before a trial, or Saddam Hussein’s ouster, saying ‘I suppose it was a good thing.’ It was a perfect example of the classic Dean style: each single jarring note is merely part of a symphony in the key of a sublime lack of seriousness.”
The answer, Dean insisted, was hard work and long hours of practice, holding up former vice president Al Gore as an example. Gore had started out as a wooden and only mildly unbalanced orator but, since the 2000 election, had progressed to delivering speeches in a manner that made him appear as if he were only moments away from swatting himself in the head in order to kill the bees buzzing around inside. For his speech this week on the “Bush police state,” Dean revealed that Gore is said to have spent weeks working with the actor Tom Cruise in order to further perfect a mien of clueless stridency. Organizers had even toyed with the idea of equipping the stage with a couch for Gore to jump up and down upon but felt that the possibility of him gnawing on the cushions during the more histrionic passages was too great.
As the meeting ended and the attendees milled about in the outer offices, Dean said in a stage whisper, “Watch and learn.” The chairman signaled to his closest advisers, collectively known as the “Rabid Response Team,” and office staff to gather around for one of Dean’s characteristic off-the-cuff speeches. These remarks typically result in giving party morale a shot in the foot and this occasion was no exception. “With the Alito confirmation hearings in progress, I know that all us here want to be soldiers in the battle against a conservative takeover of our courts,” Dean opined. “And to echo sentiments I recently expressed regarding Iraq, the idea that we’re going to win is just plain wrong. So hold your heads high and keep fighting! Keep fighting this already completely, completely lost cause. You’ve got to believe in victory! In this case, it’s the other guy’s victory but keep believing nevertheless.”
“If only we could terrorize them in their homes in the dead of night the way real soldiers do,” called a gloomy male voice, one distinguished by a slight Boston accent.
“Remember,” Dean continued, “all is not lost until we lose and lose big, which is something that’s unavoidably going to happen. Now, let’s go get ’em! But by getting them, I mean, getting them only up to a point that is far, far from winning which, for us, isn’t going to happen. All right, carry on.”
As the assembled aides straggled listlessly away, Dean offered committee members a parting shot, “You’re all on notice. No more half-measures. Until you can reliably come up with the kind of ill-advised, off-the-wall comments that make Tim Russert put his head in his hands during commercial breaks and fill the air with the sound of moderate Democrats across the country tearing up their DNC fundraising letters, I’m going to be on you every second. Now, does anyone need another one of my patented anti-pep talks?”
To a man, sources report, committee members raced for the elevator.