PETER O. ZIERLEIN*
It's a week after the election and Howard Dean is speaking at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, giving an unusually full-throated argument for Democratic Party organizing in Oklahoma, the only state where John McCain beat Barack Obama in every single county. "I don't know when we're going to win Oklahoma, but we have a Democratic governor from Oklahoma, we have a Democratic Congressman from Oklahoma and what we need to do is go to Oklahoma, show up and explain ourselves in terms of the values that Oklahomans hold." Those values, Dean argued, aren't so different from those of New York City or anywhere else commonly thought of as Democratic territory. It just so happens that Oklahoma's aforementioned governor, Brad Henry, had given Dean a pair of cowboy boots, which he wore, to somewhat hilarious effect, throughout the Democratic convention in Denver.
The former Vermont governor and chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has become an unlikely advocate for Democrats across the country, particularly in so-called red America. His passion for showing up in unexpected locales is not based on wishful thinking or stubborn naivete but rather political necessity. Dean's favorite quote, which he repeats over and over, is Louis Pasteur's "Chance favors the prepared mind." The way he sees it, you never know when any state, even the Sooner State, might get a jolt of blue. After all, just look at what happened in 2006, when Democrats flipped both houses of Congress. Or this past November, when Barack Obama won Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia, along with three previously red Western states, and the party picked up Congressional seats in places like Alabama, Alaska, Idaho and Mississippi.
It almost feels like ancient history, but "four years ago the Democratic Party was in a very different condition," Doctor Dean says at the beginning of his talk at the Y. Republicans had just retained the White House, gained four seats in the Senate and three in the House, and held twenty-eight governorships. Bill Frist was Senate majority leader, Dennis Hastert was House Speaker, George Bush's approval rating was at a healthy 50 percent and Karl Rove planned a "permanent Republican majority." It was "not a fun time to be a Democrat," Dean cracks.
How quickly things change. Four years later Democrats elected Obama with 67 million votes. They picked up seven seats in the Senate (with Minnesota still pending at press time)and twenty-one in the House, and they hold sixty of ninety-nine state legislative chambers. Obama's extraordinary campaign and Bush's remarkable mishandling of the country's domestic and foreign policies deserve much of the credit for the Democratic Party's resurgence, but so does Howard Dean. Before virtually any major politician, Dean not only sensed that the era of Republican ascendancy could be stopped but also how to do it, first through his trailblazing though unsuccessful presidential campaign of 2004, and then through his forceful stewardship of the party as DNC chair since 2005. "Dean gave the party a mission and a focus," says Paul Tewes, a top Obama strategist who ran day-to-day operations at the DNC during the general election. "That's a big deal when you're out of power." DNC member Donna Brazile calls Dean "one of the unsung heroes of this moment."
As he prepares to step down as DNC chair in January, giving way to Obama's handpicked successor, Dean has cemented his legacy as a prophetic, if underappreciated, visionary in the party [see Berman, "The Dean Legacy," March 17]. When pundits saw the country hopelessly divided between red and blue--with the blue part of the map restricted to the West Coast, the Northeast and an increasingly embattled Midwest--Dean argued that the party had to compete everywhere. After the epic meltdown of his presidential campaign, punctuated by the endlessly looped "Dean scream" after the Iowa caucus, Dean took one of the most thankless jobs in Washington and turned it into a laboratory for one of the most exciting experiments in modern Democratic Party history. He radically devolved power away from Washington by cultivating a new generation of state political organizers and lending support (and money) to long-forgotten local parties, bucking the Beltway establishment and enabling grassroots activists. He rehabilitated his party, and his image, in the process. Dean's fifty-state strategy, as it came to be known, "fertilized the landscape" for Obama's fifty-state campaign, Brazile says. If his strategy is extended during the Obama administration, we'll find out what a true fifty-state party looks like.
At the 2004 Democratic convention, Dean, who was running Democracy for America, the grassroots organization he founded after his presidential bid, met with state chairs from around the country and heard all about their woes. "They were all talking to me about how hard it was to win governorships and Congressional seats and state legislative races because nobody would put any money in except in the presidential race," Dean recalls in an early December interview in his Washington office. He'd learned during the primary that year how much the party had atrophied organizationally, "lurching from one election to the next," slicing the electorate into narrower and narrower targets (remember Florida and Ohio?). The meeting with the state chairs confirmed his worst fears. "I realized we weren't a national party anymore," he says.
A few months later the state chairs asked Dean and the other contenders for DNC chair to give $200,000 a year to each state party. Dean enthusiastically embraced and enlarged the plan en route to easily winning the DNC race and gave every state the resources to hire at least three or four organizers and access to a high-tech database of voters, which became the twin cornerstones of the fifty-state strategy. Under Dean, battlegrounds like Ohio still took priority, but every state got something. That might not sound like much, but it was practically a revolution within the Democratic Party, which tended to view the DNC as a PR agency and ATM for Congress and/or the White House. "We had a great building and no debt," Dean says, referring to the work of his predecessor, the high-flying Clintonite Terry McAuliffe. "But there was essentially no technological infrastructure and no political infrastructure of any worth." The states, by and large, had been left to fend for themselves.