The Howard Dean Rejuvenation Project

This was originally published Nov. 14 at Blast Magazine.

When Howard Dean’s presidential campaign floundered in 2004, many thought his days as a major player in politics were over. Four years later, Dean is credited for having rejuvenated not only his own political reputation, but also for contributing to the Democrats recent takeover of Washington.

It was more than four years ago that Howard Dean put an exclamation point of his sinking presidential campaign, with his now infamous “scream speech” after the New Hampshire primary in 2004. The speech featured a dejected Dean, coming off of a crippling second-place finish, screaming something along the lines of “yeeaargh” as he listed off a large chunk of the remaining states in the union that he was hoping to win.

Contrary to the ruminations of many pundits, the scream is not what did Dean in. The New Hampshire primary effectively ended his hopes for the nomination. Nonetheless, it was this speech that came to define Dean and his campaign.

But now, in the wake of an historic election which saw President-elect Barack Obama pull out a blowout win that included victories in traditionally red states, Howard Dean seems to have found redemption -amongst his party, its supporters and, in some instances, the media.

Earlier this week, as expected, Dean stepped down from his post as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. As speculation abounds over Dean’s future and his prospects for a cabinet level position in an Obama administration, it is worth looking into his role in this presidential election and in the Democratic Party’s campaign apparatus. Dean, by many accounts, deserves credit for two major elements of the Obama campaign and the Democratic domination of Congress: the implementation of the 50-state-strategy and his role in the growth of the “Netroots” which has grown into a crucial fundraising tool for the party establishment.

The road to the chairmanship

When Dean took the chairman job in 2005 it was viewed as a fairly benign post that provided little opportunities for its holder to shape the direction of the Democratic Party in any
meaningful way. The Party was coming off an embarrassing presidential loss to President Bush, after a lackluster campaign led by John Kerry that failed to take advantage of growing anti-war sentiment that had been fostering among the country, and would eventually catapult the Democrats into power in the legislative branch during the 2006 mid-term elections.

Dean had previously attempted to harness this energy into his presidential campaign, and for a while was quite successful. Weeks before the New Hampshire primary, Dean was leading in the polls. But, in the days before the primary, his stock started plummeting dramatically. Democrats feared Dean would be unelectable in the general election and members of the democratic establishment were resistant to Dean and went on the attack.

While Dean’s liberalism was often overstated (he is actually a fiscal conservative and a staunch drug warrior), he and his supporters represented something of a shift from the centrist, pro-business wing of the party that had dominated it for much of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Channeling the words of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, Dean would argue that he was “from the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.”

But this line of thought did not sit well with the party establishment, the most powerful of whom (Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman etc …) had aligned themselves with the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a group which was started in 1984 in reaction to Ronald Reagan’s blowout win over George McGovern in the 1984 presidential election. The basic goal of the DLC was to move the party to the right, especially on matters of economics and foreign policy, under the theory that this was the only way to curb Republican dominance of the federal government.

The DLC sharply attacked Dean, saying he was from “The McGovern-Mondale wing” of the Party, defined “principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest group liberalism at home.”
In July of that year, Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, then- chairman of the DLC, said “The [Bush] Administration is being run by the far-right. The Democratic Party is in danger of being taken over by the far left.” They also joked about Dean’s web site following by asking: “Will he be the next dot com bust?”

The extent to which the “New Democrats” derailed the Dean presidential campaign is debatable, but as the world recalls, Kerry won the primary, called for a surge of 40,000 troops in Iraq, and lost to Bush in an election that was close (and, as an aside, controversial).

The Democratic Party, reeling from a woeful election which also saw the Republicans extend their control of both the House and Senate, had little to look forward to, but the race for DNC chairman did illicit some interest from Democrats, despite the fact that the position was widely viewed as essentially toothless.

In retrospect, it turned out to be a crucial moment for the Democratic Party, whose members never could have foreseen the drastic turnaround that was ahead.

Dean’s victory

The outgoing DNC chairman, Terry McAuliffe was a loyal Clintonite and fundraiser extraordinaire, who perhaps more than anyone in recent memory, epitomized the term “Washington Insider.” And clearly, the idea of replacing McAullife with Dean, the former Governor of Vermont, did not sit well with the same crowd that sought to kill Dean’s presidential campaign.

“Political and media elites in Washington are at once horrified and dismissive of Dean’s quest. They insist that Democrats would be crazy to pick a raving liberal like Dean as their next party chairman,” wrote Mark Hertsgaard in Salon, as Dean was campaigning for chairman. “But as is so often the case, this inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom is based on dubious ‘facts’ and assumptions about how ordinary Americans relate to politics. Dean is exactly the leader Democrats need to become relevant again.”

Dean was a threat to the party insiders for several reasons and his pseudo-liberalism was only one of them. More worrisome to the Democrat elite was his opinion on the way the Democratic Party should campaign. Dean had long argued that Democrats should pour resources into all 50 states - whether they lean Republican or Democrat - in order to build a sustainable party that would not cede the South in every election. He famously said that Democrats should look to win over “guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks,” on top of the supporters the party already had. Dean was chastised by many Democrats for the remark, much like he was chastised for his early opposition to the War in Iraq, but, as Hertsgaard observed, “in view of how many centrist voters chose President Bush over John Kerry, even though Kerry’s economic policies would have benefited them more, Dean’s call to reach out to culturally conservative voters was prescient.”

Establishment types such as Rahm Emanuel and James Carville were adamantly opposed to the plan, preferring rather to focus their resources on states that the Democrats were traditionally competitive in. Former Bill Clinton advisor Paul Begala suggested that Dean’s plan was “just hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose.”

“The point of a political party is not to hire people, it is to elect people,” Carville would later quip to the Christian Science Monitor.

Nonetheless, Dean proved triumphant and won the chairmanship. His main challengers, Donnie Fowler and Simon Rosenberg, dropped out when it became clear Dean would prevail. Members of the party shifted gears, perhaps thinking that business-as-usual had led John Kerry to what many thought was an inexcusable defeat. And the 50-state strategy, for better or worse, went into effect.

The elections

The basic theory of the 50-state strategy was to carve out a long-term strategy for success. This strategy worked for the Republicans in the past. Despite getting blown out in the 1964 presidential election (Lyndon Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater), Republicans had set the table for later success, which they found in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan unseated Jimmy Carter.

Few predicted that Democrats were in a position to take red states in the 2006 midterm elections, and take control of both chambers. Yet, that is exactly what happened in 2006. Jim Webb, defeated incumbent George Allen (who did his best to help the Democrats with his [11] racist comments on the stump); Jon Tester took a senate seat in Montana; Rick Santorum was taken down by John Casey in Pennslyvania; and the Democrats came tantalizingly close to stealing Tennessee from Bob Corker.

While at the time many hailed Dean for his vision, amazingly, members of the old guard still resisted. Carville, amazingly, said Dean should have been “dumped” for his part in the 2006 election, arguing that the Democrats would have won many more House seats had the old system been in place. He added that Dean was, “Rumsfeldian in its competence.”

But just a few weeks ago the Democrats again had great success in red states, winning the presidency for the first time since 1996 and expanding their majorities in Congress considerably; Dean’s strategy is lauded once again, and if James Carville is calling out Dean for ineptitude, he is doing it out of the public eye.

Of course, not all of the credit should go to the 50-state strategy. The Democrats ran on an anti-war platform in 2006 (though, it is worth noting, they did not follow through on it) and took advantage of Bush’s dismal approval rankings and the unpopularity of the war. In 2008, they were helped dramatically by an economic crisis that most blame on Republican policies (though both parties have largely supported deregulation in recent decades). More importantly, the Democrats have also worked with massive fundraising advantages in the last two elections. President-elect Barack Obama, for example, benefited mightily from online donations from grassroots supporters.

And this - the rise of the Internet fundraising apparatus that has helped sweep the Democrats into power - can also be attributed, in no small way, to Dean’s previous efforts.

Dean and the Netroots

Flash back to 2003, in the early stages of the 2003 presidential primary. Howard Dean’s long-shot campaign, while shunned by many in the party, was finding favor with a relatively young group of liberals, who spent a good deal of their time posting their musings on the web. One such person was Markos Moulitsas, founder of the one of the most popular political blogs in America, Dailykos.com.

Moulitsas, known on his blog as “kos,” was described at the time as “an obscure blogger” by rival campaigns. But, while he was obscure to some, his blog was one of many that were growing rapidly as they made an effort to use the Internet to push the Democratic Party to the left. These blogs, which also included sites like mydd.com and atrios.com, would later come to be known as The Netroots. In time The New Republic, a magazine that has not traditionally been an ally of the liberal blogs, would call this phenomenon “the most important mass movement in U.S. politics.”

When Kos was asked to assist the Dean campaign, he wrote: “The Dean campaign wants to prove that the Internet can and will change the way campaigns are organized and run.” Four and half years later, it is hard to argue that Dean was not right. The Netroots has become a major source of fundraising for the party, not to mention a popular place for liberals to pontificate online.

And Barack Obama, a shrewd politician no doubt, jumped at the opportunity to use this to his advantage (so too, did John Edwards, who hired Joe Trippi, Dean’s campaign manager in 2004, to run his failed 2008 presidential run).

Obama has 2.4 million friends of Facebook, has been watched on YouTube four times as much as John McCain, and ended up raising hundreds of millions of dollars as a result of the Internet, much of it coming from small donors. These circumstances led some to call Obama, “The First Internet President.”

As one writer for The Root observed: “On my.barackobama, nearly 30,000 user-created electronic mailing lists, such as Harlem for Obama or Filmmakers for Obama, coordinated largely spontaneous activities of local, national- and issue-based groups. Group members could talk directly to each other and coordinate independent campaign efforts that ranged from sharing informal personal stories to planning big-ticket fundraisers, getting together for modest debate watching parties and organizing mammoth weekend get-out-the-vote efforts.”

This is exactly the kind of service the “liberal blogosphere” had been doing (and still are) for years. Raising money online and allowing the development of a community of supporters to organize online. And this is a method that was first popularized by one Howard Dean. This is not lost on those who forged this path. Following the election, Moulitsas wrote: “One of my goals the next few weeks is to make sure that Howard Dean gets his due props and, by extension, all of us who fought to make Dean’s vision a reality,”

The future for Dean and the Democrats

While Obama clearly benefited from Dean’s work, there is still a question as to how Obama govern, and who he will listen to as President. While some speculate that Dean may be up for a Cabinet position, it was Rahm Emmanuel, an adversary of Dean, who was appointed chief of staff. And while it was Dean’s opposition to the War in Iraq that made him a relevant figure, Obama’s aides told the Wall Street Journal that he plans on leaving some troops in Iraq indefinitely. In 2006, Obama also supported pro-war Democrat Joe Lieberman over Ned Lamont, who at the time was the biggest Netroots sensation since Dean. This, again, showed that Obama is by means toeing the line that many prominent progressive bloggers would prefer.

So even with Dean’s great success, it is not clear what direction the party will take. But, even though we may not know what the next era of Democratic Party politics will look like, we do know that it is an era that may have never seen the light of day, if it weren’t for the groundwork laid by Howard Dean and his earliest supporters.

Photo Credit: Matt Wright

Image Credit: PolitickerVT.com