John Nichols, in the March 7th Nation, analyzes Howard Dean's win in the race for Democratic Party chairmanship.
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.
Inspiration to frustrated activists:
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.
Filling a vacuum:
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.
Frustrating to Party old-timers and surprisingly attractive to Red-staters:
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.
Ambitious, savvy and experienced in finding supporters:
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 DC 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."
No more Republican-lite:
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."