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Can Frost heal the Democrats?

| Sunday, Jan. 23, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Having had their fill of post-election introspection, the 447 Democratic Party luminaries who on Feb. 12 will elect their new chairman surely now yearn for stronger wine and madder music. Many yearn for Howard Dean, the highly carbonated tribune of "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." Dean is fun -- a scream, you might say.

But losing is not. So the 447 should wonder whether, after John Kerry's defeat, another liberal Northeasterner is the proper poultice for the party's wounds. Hotline's poll -- 42 percent of the 447 responding -- shows that a refugee from a red state is second behind Dean.

Martin Frost is a political lifer eager to prolong his engagement in party affairs that began in 1968 when, as a Georgetown University law student, he volunteered at the headquarters of Hubert Humphrey's presidential campaign. Frost's 13-term congressional career ended last November when he was one of four Texas Democrats who were victims of the mid-decade redistricting engineered by Rep. Tom DeLay. Democrats like victims as much as they dislike DeLay, so Frost has a double claim on Democrats' pity, which is their sincerest compliment.

Frost says that while losing his Dallas seat he nevertheless demonstrated the skills of a political mechanic, skills needed by any Democrat chairman competing with the Republicans' chairman, Ken Mehlman. Frost boasts that for the first time in 20 years Democrats -- four of them -- were elected to Dallas County offices, including a Hispanic lesbian as sheriff.

Frost ran unsuccessfully against Nancy Pelosi for House minority leader, saying he thought her too liberal. She has encouraged, but not endorsed, the candidacy of former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer, a member of the 9/11 commission, who is more conservative than Frost.

Roemer, however, is the combined first or second choice of just 11 percent in Hotline's poll, partly because he committed the unpardonable faux pas of suggesting that Democrats unwisely regard every wrinkle in the pro-abortion agenda -- including opposition to parental notification and support for partial-birth abortions -- as sacraments of the Church of Choice.

Frost, who clerked for the lower court judge who made the Roe v. Wade ruling that the Supreme Court sustained, says, "I think we could get right on parental notification -- with a judicial bypass.'' That will not get him excommunicated.

Frost, who had ancestors in Texas politics a century ago, has been endorsed by former party chairman Robert Strauss, who attended the University of Texas with Frost's parents, and by Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, who ranks second to Pelosi in the Democrats' House leadership. Hoyer says Frost "reinvented'' the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the four years he ran it after the Democrats lost 52 seats in the 1994 elections.

Democrats, Frost proudly notes, gained 9 seats in 1996. But how could they not have bounced back a bit• In 1998, Democrats survived the electorate's "six year itch'' for change: For the first time in a century, the party of a president in the middle of his second term gained seats -- five of them. But Democrats were still at a low base, and were boosted by Republican obsessiveness about Bill Clinton's glandular life.

Frost wants to reverse the atrophy of many state parties that happens when national Democrats chase the chimera of winning the White House by running the table in the 18 to 20 states they contest. His wife is the highest-ranking woman general on active Army duty, and he supported a general -- Wesley Clark -- for the 2004 presidential nomination. Frost thinks that if Democrats will stop talking about gun control -- he talks about shooting awards he won at age 8 -- and if they can sound more serious about the U.S. military's guns, Democrats can carry some red states.

Frost says Dean is "such a lightning rod in various parts of the country." But what you might think is Frost's most favorable contrast with Dean -- that Frost is not incandescent -- might be a disadvantage. Some Democrats think that only Dean could slow the party's probable slide from a Northeastern liberal presidential nominee in 2004 to one in 2008 with even less appeal in red states -- Hillary Clinton. Dean might be the only chairman with enough political stature and fermenting personality to prevent Bill Clinton's restless energies from influencing every party and candidate's calculation.

Granted, the restorative powers of the next Democratic Party chairman are rather less than many of the 447 party luminaries who will select him probably imagine. But as has been said, the consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.

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