By Alexander Bolton
Several senior Senate Democrats have intensified their push for Howard Dean to become the next secretary of Health and Human Services, but the effort has run into what Dean allies call Democratic “family politics.”
Senate Democratic heavyweights such as Tom Harkin (Iowa)and Patrick Leahy (Vt) say that Dean, a doctor who focused on healthcare during his decade as Vermont’s governor, would make for a perfect choice.
But conservative Senate Democrats are leery of Dean and privately question whether he would be able to work with centrists such as Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) to pass far-reaching reform.
Dean has built up a pile of political chits from his four-year stint as one of the most successful Democratic Party chairmen in recent history.
During Dean’s four years at the helm of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the party captured the White House, Senate and House. Democrats picked up 13 Senate seats and more than 50 House seats in the 2006 and 2008 elections.
Despite this, White House officials say that Dean is not among the front-runners to succeed former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) as President Obama’s choice for Health and Human Services, according to Democratic sources.
Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is considered the front-runner to head the department, say those sources. John Podesta, who managed the presidential transition, and former Clinton administration Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew are said to be well ahead of Dean on the shortlist.
This has not sat well with Dean’s inner circle.
“It’s damn near disrespectful,” said a Democrat close to Dean who has played a prominent role in national Democratic politics. “Tell me, who has been a more successful modern-day chairman?”
Dean taking charge of national healthcare reform “makes all the sense in the world, and the only thing in the way is internal family politics,” said the Dean ally.
Another Dean friend fumed: “It’s as appalling as it is arrogant.”
The ally noted that Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign developed the strategic template that Obama used for his own campaign four years later, a plan that relied on the Internet, small donors and a message of taking on entrenched interests in Washington.
“There seems to be no demonstration of gratitude in any meaningful respect,” said the Dean Democrat.
Obama has been careful to keep Dean at a distance. Surprisingly, Dean was nowhere to be seen at a press conference Obama held to announce Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine as Dean’s successor as DNC chairman.
Dean clashed with powerful Democrats during his tenure as party head.
When he was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rahm Emanuel — now Obama’s chief of staff — once stormed out of Dean’s office after a heated argument over how to spend party funds.
Dean has rankled other prominent Democrats in the past. During his 2004 run for president, Dean squared off against former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.) in an epic mudslinging match during the Iowa presidential primary. One of Gephardt’s top political strategists at the time was David Plouffe, who bounced back from that disappointing primary to manage Obama’s successful 2008 run.
Dean allies say that he would grab the opportunity to spearhead healthcare reform during Obama’s first term.
“Howard would be interested in any significant position where he felt he could serve the president and concentrate on healthcare initiatives that are the heart and soul of what he’s been working on all his life as a physician and a governor,” said Steve Grossman, a longtime friend of Dean and chairman of his 2004 presidential campaign.
As governor, Dean expanded health coverage for children and pregnant women, cutting the ranks of Vermont’s uninsured by several percentage points.
Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a liberal-leaning nonprofit group that advocates for “affordable healthcare for all Americans,” said that Dean “played a critical role in leading his state toward a vast expansion of healthcare coverage for children.”
The experience could fit well with Obama’s vision for healthcare reform. Universal children’s healthcare coverage was a central component of the plan Obama unveiled on the campaign trail.
“What he did in Vermont as governor shows that he understands how to get children covered and how to do healthcare,” said Harkin, chairman of the Appropriations Health and Human Services subcommittee, in reference to Dean.
“A lot of us are supporting him,” said Harkin, in reference to his Senate colleagues.
Leahy, who has pushed Dean with the Obama administration, said that Vermont is now considered one of the healthiest states in the nation, a significant accomplishment given its small size and limited budget. Senate Democratic centrists are decidedly less enthusiastic.
“I would question whether Dean would be able to reach across the aisle to work with Republicans,” said one Democratic senator. “The debate over the stimulus shows that you’re not going to be able to ram something as big as healthcare reform through without bipartisanship.”