Bob Schieffer is fond of relating words of wisdom of our former colleague George Herman, who passed away this week. Herman used to say that CBS was like high school. There was a "cool list." Sometimes you were on it and sometime you were off, and you never had any idea how you got on it in the first place or why you were suddenly off.
Howard Dean knows a lot about cool lists, but he probably has a good idea of why he was on, off and now back on it again. The Dean boomlet of 2003 was one part political courage, one part smart primary politics and one part media frenzy. By 2004, the bubble burst and the worm turned. The media types who had pumped him up seemed to take particular delight in knocking him down. And the courageous and exciting Dean, who burst into the Democratic Party meeting in February 2003 claiming to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, became the gaffe prone, risky, abrasive "pin cushion" of the other candidates and the Democratic establishment.
Two years after that successful DNC speech and one year after he flamed out, Dean is back making his wing the entire corpus of the Democratic Party. It seems that despite all the doubts about his ability to be president, a lot of Democrats continued to admire this small-state doctor who had the courage to stand up against a war he believed was wrong and touched a nerve in a lot of voters. Especially voters inside the Democratic National Committee, whose reaction to his speech launched him in the first place. He also touched a lot of people who felt left out of the process. And those people showed their gratitude to Dean by sending him money – lots of it.
Rick Ridder, Dean's pre-Joe Trippi campaign manager, says Dean is a much more comfortable person these days. "He seems very comfortable with his newfound role; more comfortable than he ever did running for president, once the campaign took off," Ridder says.
But is the transformation in Dean or in the rest of the party? Or is Dean merely the champion of the Democratic base?
Clearly, Dean wanted a job that few big-name Democrats wanted to take on. There was a huge vacuum created by John Kerry's decision to lie low following his defeat and his inability to recruit a major figure to run the party. Dean and his team figured out a masterful plan to pick off members of the Democratic National Committee, one constituency at a time. But if he didn't have something to sell he would have been blackballed by a crowd he once compared to cockroaches. The governors tried to do it and so did the party leadership in Congress, who got behind former Rep. Tim Roemer, whose pro-life record made him a nonstarter with many of those who will actually cast votes.
As recently as December, even liberal members of the DNC were down on Dean, whom they liked but were unsure was the guy for purple, let alone red, America. By mid-January, those folks had changed their tone. When the alternative appeared to be Roemer, many pro-choice women saw Dean looking a lot better. "Well, Howard might not be so bad, " a DNC official said to me. "He can say things that others will shy away from and let the elected Democrats look more responsible." By early February, the official was preening that Howard was checking in several times a day.
Kate Michelman the former head of NARAL, who almost ran herself when it looked like Roemer might be a contender, gives the party line on Dean. "He has so much energy, especially at the grassroots. That's where the Democrats have to go," she says.
Off the record, many Democrats say they are nervous about Dean's lack of "message discipline" and the perception that the party is making a left turn. They say they hope he will view his job as activating the grassroots and raising money, but worry that the way he will do it is by pushing liberal issues. But, publicly, Howard is the man.
"Pragmatism," said longtime Dean strategist Steve McMahon, explaining the change in tone a couple of weeks ago. "They see the handwriting on the wall." The DNC members apparently bought Dean's pitch: the need to build up the state parties (25 percent of the 447 voters are chairs and vice chairs); his proven ability to raise small-donor money; his commitment to grassroots organizing; and his track record as head of the Democratic Governors Association, where he was a team player and not a bomb thrower.
Dean worked these 447 members relentlessly and it has paid off. The folks who launched him onto that cool list two years ago, when he spoke to their disappointment over the 2002 elections and anger at their party leaders' vote authorizing the president to use force in Iraq, are about to put him back on the list. Cool. Way cool.