It was a mean question, but Howard Dean had to know it was coming.
The Democratic National Committee chairman was visiting Capitol Hill for a chat with Sen. Harry Reid, followed by a photo-op scrum with the minority leader and 50-plus journalists. That's when Fox News correspondent Brian Wilson did the math and asked the inevitable question.
The equation was simple. Since Dean had said (a) that he hates Republicans and (b) that the GOP is full of white Christians, did these statements imply (c) that he hates white Christians?
For once, Dean held his tongue.
That's the way things have been going ever since the San Francisco forum in which Dean said that the problem with Republicans is that they have “a pretty monolithic party. They all behave the same. They all look the same. It's pretty much a white Christian party.”
There was more. “The Republicans are not very friendly to different kinds of people,” he said. “We're more welcoming to different folks, because that's the type of people we are.”
When offered a chance to soften his “white Christian party” remark, Dean told NBC that “unfortunately, by and large, it is. And they have the agenda of the conservative Christians.”
And all the people said: There he goes again.
It was hard to hear red-state Democrats grinding their teeth because of all the Republicans screaming “Hallelujah!” This was the best news for the GOP values-voter strategists since candidate Dean, during the 2004 White House race, proclaimed that Bible Belt people should stop being so obsessed with “guns, God and gays.”
Dean's latest barrage did annoy religious conservatives. Some wondered how mainstream journalists and politicians would have responded to similar statements targeting social or religious groups on the Left.
Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, a Catholic conservative, asked what would happen if President Bush ever stood at a podium and said these words:
“The struggle between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party is a struggle between good and evil and we're the good. I hate Democrats. Let's face it, they have never made an honest living in their lives. They have no shame. But why would they? They have never been acquainted with the truth. You ever been to a Democratic fundraiser? They all look the same. They all behave the same. They have a dictatorship, and suffer from zeal so extreme they think they have a direct line to heaven.”
This was not a real speech, of course. What the former Reagan White House scribe had done was weave together threads from recent speeches by Dean and by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. It is unusual, she said, for top party leaders to use this kind of rhetoric in the public square.
The biggest problem is that Washington, DC, is more “politically segregated,” than the rest of America, she said. “Democrats by and large hang out with Democrats, Republicans with Republicans. This is true in consulting, in think tanks, in journals, in Congress. If you work for a Democratic senator, the office is full of Democrats. The people with whom you share inside jokes and the occasional bitter aside are Democrats. The same is true for Republicans.”
She could have listed one more reality. The generals and dedicated soldiers in the two parties certainly do not worship in the same kinds of sanctuaries. Dean keeps shining a spotlight on this religious schism.
This is strange since Dean is white and he has openly said he is a Christian. He also keeps insisting that the Democratic Party must lose its fear of moral language as it strives to regain its old foothold among traditional religious believers.
But if this is his goal, asked Howard Fineman and Tamara Lipper of Newsweek, why does the Democratic Party leader keep making these kinds of hostile remarks?
“Dean's real problem may not be his mouth but his mind-set,” they wrote. “He and his aides seemed genuinely mystified at the idea that his characterization of the GOP was a political mistake. But by labeling the other party a bastion of Christianity, he implied that his own was something else something determinedly secular at a time when Dean's stated aim is to win the hearts of middle-class white Southerners, many of whom are Evangelicals.”
Terry Mattingly teaches at Palm Atlantic University and is a senior fellow for journalism at the Council For Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.