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.”