With the selection of Howard Dean as its chairman, the 213-year-old Democratic Party has become something it has not been for a long time: exciting.
A measure of that came three days before the 447 members of the Democratic National Committee chose him, at a pre-victory party Dean held in a microbrewery just blocks from DNC headquarters. Hundreds of his mostly young, mostly liberal supporters packed the place to hear Dean declare the Democrats to be the "party of the future." They also got a signal that he remained "their man," not the neutered version of himself that party insiders were still hoping he might become in his new role. When a backer bellowed the updated Harry Truman slogan that became a mantra for Dean's presidential campaign -- "Give 'em hell, Howard!" -- a wicked grin rippled across Dean's face. "I'm trying to be restrained in my new role," he chirped. "I may be looking for a three-piece suit." Then he burst into laughter and exclaimed, "Fat chance!"
The crowd cheered. Reporters flipped open notebooks. A faint shudder was heard from the offices of Congressional Democratic leaders. And Republicans, recalling the Iowa caucus incident that so damaged Dean's presidential prospects, repeated their tired take on the Vermonter's political resurrection: "It's a scream."
But unlike past DNC chairs, Dean won't have to scream for attention. Taking over as chairman of a party that is locked out of the White House and unable to muster anything more than a "minority leader" to flex its legislative muscle, Dean has positioned himself as the most camera-ready Democrat in the country. As such, he is in a position to make his party -- as opposed to an individual candidate or faction -- more newsworthy and potentially more dangerous than it has been in decades. What remains to be seen, however, is whether Dean's tenure will prove merely a wild ride or a ride into the flourishing future the new chair promises: with huge gains in the 2006 elections and a Demo- cratic President marching down Pennsylvania Avenue on January 20, 2009.
Dean has become the Democratic Party's Rorschach test. Frustrated grassroots activists and donors see him as the tribune of their antiwar, anticorporate and anti-Bush views. Big thinkers see him as an idea filter who understands the potential of neglected issues and strategies. State and local party officials recognize him as a former governor who understands that Democrats can compete in all fifty states and is more likely to listen to them than Congressional leaders who remain obsessed with "targeted" states and races.
Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson sums up the pro-Dean sentiment when he says Dean will "bring new spirit and new energy to the party, the likes of which we haven't seen in a long time." But his enthusiasm is not echoed by the Democratic insiders in DC who have gotten so used to playing politics by GOP rules that they see Dean as a "madman" on a suicide mission that will wreck everything they know. "New Republic" commentator Jonathan Chait put their fears into words when he grumbled that "Dean, with his intense secularism, arrogant style, throngs of high-profile counterculture supporters and association with the peace movement, is the precise opposite of the image Democrats want to send out."
The fact that Dean inspires such diverse passions among Democrats says as much about the party's current troubles as it does about him. The truth is that his is a fairly conventional story of political progress. He was a successful, if not particularly progressive, Vermont governor who -- in the tradition of small-state governors making big splashes in national Democratic politics -- mounted an innovative run for the presidential nomination that inspired bedraggled party cadres. That campaign was doomed not by Dean's antiwar rhetoric or advocacy of domestic reforms but by his bumbling transition from insurgent to frontrunner. Were it not for another candidate's bumbling, that might have been the end of his story. "If Kerry had won, he would have picked the chairman and it wouldn't have been Howard," says Mike Tate, a former DNC member who worked for Dean's presidential campaign. "What happened in November opened up a debate about the party's future that Dean could be a part of. In fact, he'll be leading it."
Historically, the DNC has rubber-stamped as chairman the choice of whatever establishment figure was calling the shots -- a President, former President, Congressional leader or big contributor. But with Kerry defeated, Bill Clinton retired and Democratic Congressional leaders struggling to remain afloat in the GOP tide, the way was clear for something Democrats hadn't seen in years: a genuine contest. The competition suited Dean and the activists, but it horrified Beltway Democrats. Much of the griping about Dean by the party's Washington elites and their amen corner in that city's punditocracy was rooted in their faith that the DNC chairman was supposed to be someone like them: a D.C. veteran who knew more about where to grab lunch near K Street than about the best diner in Keokuk, Iowa. Thus, they cheered as House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Harry Reid (as well as Kerry) all moved to block Dean's return to the fray. They never quite figured out that Dean was going to win because he'd been to that diner in Keokuk, and he'd met there with beleaguered grassroots Democrats who appreciated his saying, "We need to be proud to be Democrats" -- and appreciated even more his suggestion that the way to express that pride is as a genuine opposition party.
"Dean understands that the essence of a good political communicator is somebody who can execute strong message contrasts," says former DNC chair David Wilhelm, a Chicago-based pol who never quite fit into the Washington scene. "Maybe what seemed wild in a presidential candidate will seem much more normal in a chair of a national party." As such, Dean picked up lots of support from Democrats who were never Deaniacs but knew the party had to change. "The Washington axis tends to cast the question in terms of right versus left, but the better way of looking at it is outside versus inside," former Labor Secretary Robert Reich told a reporter. "The Republicans have somehow managed to root themselves outside of Washington, and it's worked to their advantage. But the Democrats are rooted now essentially inside the Senate. Ugh. The argument for Dean is that he'll help change that."
A story line being developed by Dean's critics, and some Dean enthusiasts, says his people took over the party. They didn't. Dean won the contest by doing what he did best during the 2004 campaign: relentlessly working the phones to connect with the people who do the heavy lifting in the party (he called the Arizona Democratic Party chair at 10:30 on a Saturday night to discuss the DNC race) and getting local activists in neglected corners of the country excited. "I was not going to vote for Howard Dean," says Randy Roy, a Topeka hotel owner and Kansas representative on the DNC. "Then I heard him and he won me over. He doesn't put his finger up in the wind. He says we are the party of social justice. We are the party that evens the playing field for the little guy. And he recognizes that we need to say that again and again and again."
The Washington-insider line on Dean was that he would be anathema to Democrats from "red" states like Kansas, where Kerry won only a single county. The reality was the opposite: Some of Dean's first major endorsements for chair came from party leaders in Alabama, Mississippi and, yes, Kansas. When Reid suggested that Justice Antonin Scalia would be an acceptable Chief Justice, Dean disagreed. That created a stir in Washington, including an "it's not your job to set policy" admonishment from outgoing chair Terry McAuliffe. But it didn't hurt Dean with DNC members. "That, to me, is one more reason to elect him chairman," says Roy.
Now that Dean is chairman, he'll have to strike a balance between grassroots Democrats, who want the party to be more muscular in opposition, and Congressional Democrats, who tend to believe, as Pelosi has argued, that the chair will "take his lead from us." Dean, who once ran the Democratic Governors Association and knows a lot about party etiquette, won't go to war with the Congressional leaders. But, as one Dean backer said, "He has to prod them. I mean, what's the point of making Dean party chair if he isn't going to get these people to use their backbones?" Dean's aides say he will lie low initially, looking for fights where he can put a charged-up party to work for Congressional Democrats, perhaps in defense of Social Security, perhaps in opposition to a Supreme Court nominee.
Dean will paper over a lot of tensions if he can make the DNC as essential for Democratic candidates as the RNC is for Republicans. Even before Dean's election as chair, the DNC made a major commitment to aid party nominees in 2005 contests for mayor of New York City and governor of New Jersey and Virginia. And the DNC will be all over the 2006 fights for the Senate, where Democrats will struggle to defend more seats than the GOP, and the House, where Democratic prospects should be somewhat better. But Dean's best chance to prove himself will be at the state and local levels, where three dozen governorships, attorneys general slots, control of state legislatures and thousands of county posts that are vital to rebuilding the party's infrastructure will be at stake. Dean's pledge to transform the party into a grassroots organization "that can win in all fifty states" will be put to the test. Dean -- energized by the success that Democracy for America, the successor organization to his 2004 campaign, had in aiding successful local campaigns in places like Salt Lake County, Utah, and Montgomery, Alabama -- relishes the prospect, an attitude that distinguishes him from predecessors who seldom found time for legislative races, let alone county commission contests.
Dean starts with a DNC that is financially sound -- McAuliffe left a surplus, and Kerry just kicked in another $1 million from unspent campaign funds -- and that has developed a broadened base of small donors. But Dean will need to expand that base, not only because it will free him and the party from the constraints placed on it in the 1990s by an overreliance on big donors and special interests but also because his ambitious program will require him to move a lot of money out of the D.C. headquarters, which McAuliffe spent so much time renovating. Dean's plan to spend at least $11 million annually to beef up state parties will be his most expensive early initiative. But he has a lot of big ideas. "The tools that were pioneered in my [presidential] campaign -- like blogs and Meetups and streaming video -- are just a start," he says. "We must use all of the power and potential of technology as part of an aggressive outreach to meet and include voters, to work with the state parties, and to influence media coverage."
One of the most intriguing measures of the difference between Dean and his DNC predecessors is the excitement his election has generated among people with big ideas about strategy and policy. Internet innovators like Zach Exley and Zephyr Teachout have already made smart proposals for how to push the technological envelope [see Katrina vanden Heuvel's February 13 "Editor's Cut" weblog at www.thenation.com]. But where Dean could cause the greatest stir is in championing bold new approaches that will again make the Democrats a party of ideas. He still converses with the wide circle of academics and activists who, during the 2004 campaign, transformed an initially cautious candidate into a champion of innovative proposals to create a national commission on how to restore democracy, break up media conglomerates and force corporations to provide not just a full financial accounting but also a social accounting of their adherence to environmental, labor and community standards. After the campaign finished, Dean kept talking to public intellectuals like Benjamin Barber, who introduced him to progressive leaders from around the world on a trip to Rome last year, and whose ideas about how America can relate to the world offer the party a framework for a positive internationalism.
What's genuinely exciting about the Dean chairmanship is the prospect that the party might come to mirror its new chief's enthusiasm for bold stances and strategies. Dean's best applause line in the race for DNC chair was, "We cannot win by being Republican-lite. We've tried it; it does not work." For all the important talk of rebuilding state parties and using new technologies, what matters most about Dean's election as DNC chair is his recognition that Democrats have to be serious about holding out to Americans the twin promises of reform and progress, and that they are not going to do that by tinkering with the status quo. "We just can't let the Republicans define the debate anymore. We have to be the party of ideas," Randy Roy says from Topeka. "Dean understands that we have to be the party that shakes things up."
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is currently the editor of the editorial page of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times. Nichols is the author of two books: "It's the Media, Stupid" and "Jews for Buchanan."
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from the The Nation