Washington Prowler

Downing Street Downers

Dean doesn't do apologies. Plus: Is the White House opposing Katherine Harris?

By 6.20.05

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CHOMPING AT THE FOOT
Even if his mouth isn't open, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean finds a way to stick his foot in it. Last week, it was his contribution to a hugely embarrassing moment for the Democratic Party. which saw him involve the party in an anti-Operation Iraqi Freedom hearing on Capitol Hill and allow several individuals into party headquarters during that hearing who passed out anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda.

It all started when Michigan Democrat Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, and his staff decided to hold a "congressional hearing" on Capitol Hill last Thursday in attempt to draw media attention to the so-called "Downing Street Memo."

Depending on how one reads the document, which was leaked by individuals inside the British government, it is purportedly a contemporaneous recounting of a meeting of Prime Minister Tony Blair's national security team, in which it is asserted that the Bush Administration believed that an invasion of Iraq was inevitable, and that intelligence about weapons of mass destruction would be critical to gaining support for the removal of Saddam Hussein.

Most levelheaded analysts have stated that there is nothing in the memo that hasn't been stated before by President Bush, Prime Minister Blair, or their administrations. But to the kooky fringe of the left, of which Conyers is a charter member, the memo presents all kinds of possibilities to allege sinister plots and lies.

Frustrated that the media in the United States -- and even in the UK -- weren't in a frenzy over the memo, Conyers and a group of like-thinking Democrats decided to hold their hearing. Given the small size of the room in which it would be held, Democratic Judiciary staff wanted to ensure that as many supporters and press as possible could view it in real time. So they reached out to DNC chair Dean, who had also been carping about the memo on the road.

Dean readily cooperated, opening up the headquarters' Wasserman Conference Room for a live video feed of the meeting. A number of groups were invited to the DNC for the viewing, including Democrats.com, MoveOn.org, the Center for American Progress, People for the American Way, the Media Fund, and America Coming Together. During the conference, some of those present in the room were handing out material, some of it anti-war and highly anti-Semitic in tone.

"No one knows who was passing it out," says a DNC staffer. "Chairman Dean believes that it was Republican operatives who did it to embarrass us, and was going to go public with that thinking, but he was persuaded to just apologize and move on."

Dean, however, did not apologize; he only denounced the fact that the material was distributed. Nor did he or Conyers unequivocally condemn the remarks of one the individuals who testified at the Conyers hearing, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern. McGovern told Conyers, as well as Reps. Maxine Waters, (CA), Barney Frank, (MA), and Jim McDermott (WA), among others, that the war was part of an effort to allow the United States and Israel to "dominate that part of the world."

Dean, in his statement on the DNC website, cited the "dominate" language, but did not disclose that it had been uttered in what passed for a formal, Democratic Party congressional hearing, nor did he identify the source.

Other than McGovern, the hearing featured such anti-Bush administration and anti-Iraqi liberation regulars as Cindy Sheehan, a mother who lost her son in Iraq combat, and John Bonifaz, a lawyer, who in 2003 was lead counsel for a federal lawsuit filed by Conyers and then-presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich challenging the authority of President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld to launch a war against Iraq.

"Dean loved the idea of getting involved in this hearing, even though he knew where some of these guys were going to go with their public statements," says the DNC staffer. "That he is in bed with guys like Conyers and Waters and McDermott shows just how out of touch he is with where the party needs to be."

Part of the problem, too, says the DNC staffer, is that the headquarters has become a playground for fringe groups that never would have been given access under previous DNC chairmen. "You see some of the people being let in here for meetings and for coordination briefings and you have to wonder where this thing is going. There is no judgment about who the party should be associated with. If they hate Bush, can raise money, they're in. That's what happened with the Downing Street hearing. That's why we're backpedaling now."

HARRIS IN BUSH COUNTRY
Apparently Rep. Katherine Harris is not the White House's or even Senate Republicans' pick to challenge Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson in the 2006 election cycle. Harris has already announced her intention to run in the Republican Senate primary in Florida, and the thinking was that the former Sunshine State Secretary of State had the backing of senior Republicans on Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill.

But Florida House Speaker Allan Bense appears to be the chosen one. Gov. Jeb Bush has publicly stated that Bense would make a superb Senate candidate, and while he has not publicly endorsed his legislative partner, it is clear there are strong and lingering doubts about the statewide viability of Harris, who was the lightning rod for controversy during the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida.

"The real concern isn't Harris's ability as a candidate," says a Republican political consultant with clients in Florida. "The concern is what her presence in the race does to Democrats. I think she's too well known to make the run a successful one. She needs to stay in the House, get a bit more seasoning and then to look to do something down the road."

Some in Washington took Governor Bush's statements to be in line with what the White House political operation might be thinking. GOP political strategists, such as RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman and senior Bush political and policy adviser Karl Rove have not been out front on the Harris decision, though Harris and her subordinates have attempted to create the impression that she has White House and party backing.

It appears, though, that she has neither. Bense has held a number of meetings with both RNC and National Republican Senatorial Committee staff members. He has also, according to sources, met with political advisers with ties to the White House.

"We want him in the race as a viable option to Harris," says an NRSC staffer. "He'd be a great candidate, the one most likely to defeat Nelson, and the one we could support across the board."

Nelson is thought to be beatable, though he has seen his position solidify somewhat in the past few months with the Social Security debate front and center in his state.

To blunt any challengers, Harris advisers are undertaking statewide polling to show her strength across Florida. "She's a good campaigner. She has good name recognition," says one of Harris's campaign consultants. "She's going to win party support and win in November."

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