Now He Has the Power | The Nation


Now He Has the Power

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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."

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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The Washington-insider line on Dean was that he would be anathema to Democrats from "red" states like Kansas, where Kerry won only two counties. 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 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."

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."

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