The Dallas Morning News - Bush aide weighs in on Dean, Iraq; Bartlett comes to town to raise funds for Rockwall schools

By Gromer Jeffers Jr.
Copyright 2005 The Dallas Morning News

White House counselor Dan Bartlett did his best not to comment on Howard Dean's bid to chair the Democratic National Committee.

It didn't work, though, and his huge smirk soon turned into words.

"It would be an interesting choice," Mr. Bartlett told The Dallas Morning News after speaking Friday night at a black tie gathering of the Rockwall Education Foundation. "The gift that keeps on giving."

Mr. Dean, the former Vermont governor and Democratic presidential contender, is the leading candidate to succeed Terry McAuliffe as chairman of the DNC.

Some Republicans are giddy about the prospect of Mr. Dean becoming DNC chairman because many viewed him as too liberal for mainstream America.

His now famous scream speech after losing the Iowa caucus made him the focus of many jokes.

But more than one-third of Democratic state chairs have endorsed Mr. Dean, including Texas Party Chairman Charles Soechting, who likes his ability to organize on the grassroots level and to raise money.

Mr. Soechting on Saturday dismissed Mr. Bartlett's remarks, and instead chose to open fire on Texas Republicans.

"As governor of Vermont, Dean showed strong leadership," he said. "It's the kind of leadership that Texans hope Democrats bring to the governor's mansion next year."

Democrats are expected to choose their new leader Saturday.

Though still perceived as the frontrunner, Mr. Dean is now fighting a late-hour challenge by political operative Donnie Fowler.

Last week, former U.S. Rep. Martin Frost of Dallas ended his bid to become DNC chair and said that Mr. Dean would probably win.

At the Rockwall schools event inside the Wyndam Anatole Hotel on Friday, Mr. Bartlett said he was still on a high from the re-election of President Bush and the recent success of the elections in Iraq.

He said the Iraqi elections erased some doubts critics had about the war.

"It demonstrates to the American people that our sacrifice was worth it," he said. "There was probably some doubt in America's mind because of all the violence. ... To have it reaffirmed in such a courageous way with millions of Iraqi people going out to vote was a powerful moment."

President Bush has not given a date or deadline for the removal of troops from Iraq.

Mr. Bartlett said the country would have a presence in Iraq until the new democracy could stand on its own.

There are positive signs, he said, including the 130,000 Iraqi troops who helped secure their country's polling stations.

"For us to complete our mission, the Iraqis have to be capable enough to secure their own country and fight the terrorists," he said. "They're not there yet, although they're demonstrating week to week better capabilities. We have a ruthless enemy, and there's going to be tough fighting ahead."

As for the terrorist threat in nearby Syria and suspected nuclear weapons development in Iran, Mr. Bartlett said President Bush wants to work things out with diplomacy and various economic pressures.

"There are a lot of steps in between," he said of the need for diplomacy. "Obviously a president can never rule out military action."

In the domestic arena, Mr. Bartlett expects President Bush to have a long fight to get his Social Security plan through Congress.

The president wants to overhaul Social Security by allowing some participants to place their money in private investment accounts.

Democratic opponents have already hunkered down for a tough struggle.

But Mr. Bartlett said President Bush was hopeful the plan would pass.

"He is optimistic because of how the issue has changed in the course of American politics," he said. "Twenty years ago it was called the third rail of American politics because anybody who talked about it would suffer at the polls. But I think the demographics have changed so much - the baby boom generation about to retire - that people understand the system has to have some changes, and a lot of younger workers are looking for options."

Mr. Bartlett, a graduate of Rockwall High School, said several Texas universities are vying to become home to the George W. Bush Presidential Library.

They include Southern Methodist University, Baylor University, Texas Tech University and the University of Texas.

When asked which site the president preferred, he joked, "Rockwall, Texas."

"It's something that's on his mind, and he's going to put a lot of thought into it," Mr. Bartlett continued. "All of them [universities] are interested in presenting a case to the president and [first lady] Laura [Bush]."