Democrats sat in rapt attention as their king, former President Bill Clinton, pounded away on why his political party was anything but toast.
To cheers and hosannas, Clinton told the thousands at the National Building Museum last Thursday night that things weren’t as bad for Democrats as the media and Republicans would have the general public believe. But that the party needed to learn a few lessons from its losses of late. One of them was unity. He told the adoring crowd that Democrats needed to support Howard Dean, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and the state parties.
No mention of Sen. John Kerry, who shared the dais with Clinton, and who has been busily working to elevate himself to leader of the opposition nationally. Kerry is said by advisers to have been surprised that Clinton did not highlight him as a party leader to be respected and supported.
But perhaps most telling about Clinton’s comments, which were warmly received, was the lack of anything new compared to his remarks at prior DNC functions pre- or post-November election. “He has said this before in just about every Democratic Party setting he’s attended,” says a Democratic National Committee member. “I’ve heard this speech ten times in the past couple of years. There is nothing new, and it’s unfortunate that he keeps giving it, because it’s clear that our leaders aren’t listening.”
That may a reference to the open warfare that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have been waging against Dean in the past couple of months. While the three party leaders did sit down last Thursday, Reid in particular has told anyone who will listen that Dean is not the leader of the Democratic Party. Instead, Reid says, the party’s operation will be a shared responsibility, with Dean essentially reporting to Reid, Pelosi, and other senior elected officials.
“There are still so many doubts about Dean that that’s the only thing Reid can say to allay concerns,” says a Democratic Senate leadership source. “Dean is not the guy everyone wants. He has the backing of the state parties, but he’s going to have to line up with the rest of the party leadership here in D.C.”
WITH THE ABSENCE OF A STRONG party head, Reid has been elbowing his way through to at least the head of the line with Dean and Pelosi, while at the same time attempting to body block Kerry from standing with them. Reid has privately ridiculed Kerry’s outreach to British Prime Minister Tony Blair for advice on opposition party building, according to Senate staffers, and has insisted that the Democratic Party rally around him against what he perceives as GOP attacks against him on the Internet and in fundraising letters.
Reid attended a small White House dinner ten days ago and privately but pointedly asked the President to pull back his attack dogs. Bush apologized to Reid, saying he had nothing to do with it. That wasn’t good enough for Reid who, even before major legislative fights have really kicked into hear, is sensing his party may not be up to the fight. With early announcements of retirements and rumors of perhaps a few more, Reid is worried that the stated unity he has claimed in press appearances will not hold.
Meanwhile, with Reid being nipped and nicked from a thousand different directions, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi is attempting to position herself to fill the void left if Reid in fact flames out. Against advise from party media consultants, Pelosi refused to trim back her post-State of the Union remarks made on national TV, which seemed to go on for 20 minutes and focused on one of her weaker areas of expertise: foreign policy.
“If Pelosi is anything, she’s an opportunist,” says a Republican House leadership aide. “We don’t sell her short.”
In fact, many Republicans believe it is Pelosi who has been spreading the rumors that her whip, Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, is mulling a run for the Senate should Sen. Paul Sarbanes decide to retire.
“She’s been looking to get Hoyer out of the way, and she’s the one who privately has been pushing the Senate rumors. It isn’t coming from Hoyer and it isn’t coming from the Senate campaign committee,” says the Republican staffer.
Pelosi would like to elevate one of her lieutenants with whom she feels a stronger ideological kinship.