Dean slams Bush on town-hall meetings

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said yesterday that President Bush’s policy of excluding non-Republicans from town-hall meetings on Social Security reform was “not an American thing to do.”
Patrick g. Ryan
DNC Chairman Howard Dean met yesterday with House Democrats.

Dean spoke at the House Democrats’ weekly meeting for 15 minutes and took questions from lawmakers, according to several sources inside the well-attended closed-door gathering. He made the comments about the town-hall meetings at a press conference after the closed-door session.

At the press conference, House Democratic leaders said they were most exercised about Bush’s town-hall meetings, which are open only to Republican voters and party activists.

“We continue to hold hundreds of town-hall meetings that are open to all Americans. … We have honest discussions,” said Rep. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), criticizing Bush’s most recent event, last Friday in Westfield, N.J., which was open only to Republicans.

At that event, Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-N.J.) distributed tickets to the event, as did community groups such as the local Chamber of Commerce, said Christie Parell, a White House spokeswoman.

For Bush’s recent event at the University of Notre Dame, Rep. Chris Chocola (R-Ind.) gave tickets to school groups, chambers of commerce, Boys and Girls Clubs, high schools, local Army Reserve units back from Iraq, fire departments and the Indiana Medical Association.

“The audience members are a nonpartisan group. The tickets are distributed through local elected officials,” Parell added.

Dean has spent this week meeting with congressional Democrats; he met Tuesday with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Democrats. Pelosi speaks frequently to Dean on the phone and has let it be known that she is pleased with the enthusiasm he brings to the party.

Congressional Democrats have put up a united front against Bush’s proposal that workers under 55 years old be allowed to put two-thirds of their Social Security payroll taxes into private accounts in exchange for a reduction in benefits.

Asked whether a memo distributed last week by two prominent Democrats, pollster Stan Greenberg and strategist James Carville, had been discussed in the closed-door meeting, Dean said it had not.

The memo argues that Democratic criticism of private accounts would be “more powerful if rooted in a definitive direction and conviction.”
For now, Pelosi has ordered House Democrats to “oppose, not propose,” changes to Social Security, according to a well-placed Democrat.

Inside the caucus meeting, Dean received the biggest applause when he promised that he would put at least four political operatives in all 50 states and not just the so-called “battleground” states.

He also briefed lawmakers on his efforts to shore up grassroots organizing, saying that the DNC is touting its message to save Social Security in advertisements on African-American, Spanish-language and rural radio stations.

Democratic lawmakers raised questions about foreign policy, abortion and Iraq.

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, was the first lawmaker to welcome Dean. Rangel highlighted what he described as the need for a close working relationship between House Democrats and the DNC.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the party needs a coherent message on national security.

Dean explained that foreign policy was a complex issue and that the party has to find a way to simplify it. He said he would rely on help from congressional Democrats.

Asked about foreign-policy issues, Dean told The Hill that the amount of U.S. debt held by the Chinese and Saudi governments would be part of any foreign-policy message.

“We’re going to have a much broader discussion about that,” he said, alluding to record U.S. deficits over the past several years.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), meanwhile, a vehement opponent of the Iraq war, raised the issue of how Iraq should be discussed in light of recent developments there.

On abortion, Dean told the caucus that the party needs to change the language of the debate, which he said is now conducted on Republican terms. The language, he said, needs to be changed from “pro-life, pro-choice,” to “rare, safe and legal.” And he promised to discuss those changes with groups favoring abortion rights.