What’s wrong with the Democrats in Washington? Why has presidential candidate Howard Dean, who was an establishment sort of Democrat as governor of Vermont, been able to tap into widespread disappointment and anger among grassroots Democrats who are frustrated with what Dean calls “those Washington Democrats”?

Here is a small but telling explanation. Last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell held a wide-ranging press conference, his first in months. During this session, he was asked about a report produced by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that concluded there was no evidence of a prewar connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda and no evidence that Hussein had been likely to transfer weapons of mass destruction to Osama bin Laden’s network. Powell replied, “There is not–you know, I have not seen smoking-gun concrete evidence about the connection, but I think the possibility of such connections did exist and it was prudent to consider them at the time that we did.”

No concrete evidence? The possibility of such connections? That is not how Bush depicted the supposed link between Iraq’s dictator and America’s number-one foe. In a press conference in November 2002, he declared that Hussein was “dealing with” al Qaeda. And during his high-profile May 1, 2003, speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln–remember the flight suit, the “Mission Accomplished” banner?–Bush said that Hussein was an “ally” of al Qaeda.

So what did those statements mean if there was no solid evidence tying Hussein to al Qaeda? Prior to the war, Bush had argued that invasion of Iraq was necessary because (1) Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and (2) Hussein maintained an operational alliance with al Qaeda. He claimed that Hussein could at any moment slip WMDs to bin Laden. Consequently, Bush’s assertions about the relationship between Hussein and al Qaeda was an essential part of his case for war. Last February, Powell told the United Nations Security Council that there was a “sinister nexus” between Iraq and al Qaeda. Now he was saying his warning of an alliance between Hussein and al Qaeda was based on “prudent” concern, not actual facts. That is not how Bush presented the matter to the American public. Powell’s press conference comment offered more–and glaring–evidence of the gap between reality and Bush’s rhetoric and was yet another indication Bush (and Powell) had misled the nation on the way to war.

What does this have to do with Dean and the Democrats? As for the latter, apparently not much. After the media reported Powell comments, there was–as far as I could tell–no response from the “Washington Democrats.” (Powell’s comments about the Iraq-al Qaeda connection–or lack thereof–was reported by the New York Times, but The Washington Post’s piece on the press conference did not note this exchange.) A day later, the anti-Bush news focused on the revelations contained in Ron Suskind’s new book, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill (Bush was disengaged in Cabinet meetings but hell-bent on attacking Iraq from the first days of his presidency). Democratic Party chairman Terry McAullife pounced on these gotcha disclosures, and other Democratic-leaning pundits used O’Neill’s much-publicized observations as a club to bash Bush as an out-of-touch president.

But Powell’s admission–perhaps more serious–received much less attention and provoked no ire among official Democrats in the capital. Why was that? After all, he was essentially confirming one of the most serious charges leveled against Bush: that he had hornswoggled the nation into war.

In search of an explanation, I called a senior aide to the Democratic leadership in the Senate. Why, I asked, hadn’t Senator Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader, said anything? Why not Senator Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the foreign relations committee? Didn’t the Dems know that this story would quickly fade unless a high-profile Democrat made an issue of it? Wasn’t it worth asking the foreign relations committee to hold a hearing on the matter?

“This is a sad answer,” this staffer replied. “The members aren’t here right now, so they are not that focused.”

Sad indeed. Such events are not always conveniently timed. Can you imagine, I countered, how the Republicans–say Tom DeLay or Newt Gingrich–would have responded had Madeleine Albright, when she was Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, had let slip that Clinton had misled the public on a serious national security issue. These guys could have been off on a junket to the Himalayas and they still would have managed to find a television camera with a satellite feed in order to blast Clinton’s mendacity. In doing so, they would have been expressing the will of their political base–that is, serving their people.

The “Washington Democrats” gave Powell and Bush a pass on what is the most important topic for a large bloc of their party faithful. No wonder hundreds of thousands of Democrats (new and old) have turned toward Dean. Whatever his liabilities and past positions, he has been representing them–and their concerns and outrage–better than many of the Democrats sent to Capitol Hill to do just that.

DON’T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN’S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, “Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations….Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough.” For more information and a sample, check out the book’s official website: www.bushlies.com.