On November 7, 2006, all the top Democrats graced the stage of the Hyatt Regency ballroom in Washington for a big election-night victory party. All of them, that is, except Howard Dean, chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The party leadership had accused Dean of spending too much money on rebuilding moribund parties in red states and not enough on key Congressional races where Democratic pickups could strengthen their narrow majority. The results that night, as Democrats recaptured Congress, seemed to settle the argument in Dean’s favor. But key Democrats, including Representative Rahm Emanuel, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, weren’t satisfied, and Dean opted to stay away from the celebration, doing TV interviews instead. A week later, Democratic strategist James Carville, another prominent Clintonite, labeled the DNC leadership “Rumsfeldian in its competence,” and called on Dean to resign. He floated the name of Harold Ford Jr., now chair of the right-leaning Democratic Leadership Council, as a replacement. There was rampant speculation inside the Beltway that Carville wasn’t offering an unsolicited opinion but rather carrying water for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.
A few months earlier, The New Republic had reported that Clinton’s camp was “laying the groundwork to circumvent the DNC in the event that Clinton wins the nomination.” This shadow DNC had a number of integral parts: adviser Harold Ickes would develop state-of-the-art technology to help Clinton reach prospective voters; EMILY’s List and Clinton’s allies in organized labor would launch an unprecedented effort to turn out supporters, especially women voters; former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe would raise untold sums from wealthy donors and the business community; and communications honcho Howard Wolfson would direct an unrelenting war room. Ever since 1992 the Clintons had used the DNC as an outpost for raising money from big donors, and funding candidates had taken precedence over nurturing progressive organizers. That model would continue into ’08. Dean could remain at the DNC as a figurehead but only if he stayed in line.
And then the effort to marginalize Dean collapsed. Partly it’s because the party’s Congressional takeover–and a subsequent study by Harvard’s Elaine Kamarck documenting Dean’s contributions toward that end–eventually silenced the Carville-ites. Partly it’s because Barack Obama forced the Clintons to devote all their resources to fending off his insurgent candidacy. But another reason the DNC-in-exile never got off the ground was Dean himself. Dean is no longer a marginalized figure, the butt of “Dean scream” jokes, but a man with a powerful constituency in regions where his fifty-state strategy has energized aging, ailing or previously nonexistent state parties. His support to these parties has not only strengthened them but has created an independent power base for Dean himself.
Dean has remained fastidiously neutral and low-key in this presidential cycle. Yet a number of his top supporters believe the Clinton-Obama contest has become a referendum on the kind of grassroots party building and citizen empowerment Dean pioneered as a presidential candidate and continued as DNC chair. On that issue most Deaniacs, not surprisingly, side with Obama. “Ever since the TV era began in 1960, every single presidential campaign in America has been top-down,” says Joe Trippi, Dean’s ’04 campaign guru and an adviser to John Edwards before he dropped out of the race. “Only two have been bottom-up. One was Dean. The other is Obama.”
The race for the Democratic nomination is a window into how the candidates view the future of the party, which is being shaped in large part by Dean’s efforts. Are Clinton and Obama similarly committed to Dean’s fifty-state strategy? How much faith would each, as the Democratic nominee, put in the party’s grassroots? In the Internet era, the party is less about elder statesmen sitting in Washington than millions of people across the country organizing locally around issues and candidates. Dean and Obama have understood how the party is changing–and have embraced it. Clinton, thus far, has not.