While Dean and Schumer came to a truce, others continued to fume--even after the Democrats won back Congress, not to mention several red-state legislatures, in November. Before the victory celebrations had wound down, Carville renewed fire on the DNC, telling a group of reporters that Dean had cost the party an additional twenty House seats with "leadership...Rumsfeldian in its competence." But former DNC chair Don Fowler of South Carolina, whose son Donnie had run against Dean for party chair, was among a chorus of power hitters who eventually shouted down what he called Carville's "nonsense."
Not a harsh word has been heard, at least publicly, from Dean's detractors since the Carville brouhaha. That's thanks not only to the intervention of saner voices but also to a study of the fifty-state strategy's impact on the 2006 midterm results by Elaine Kamarck. While the project had not been designed to win elections in the short run, Kamarck found that it had done just that, "increasing the Democratic vote share beyond the bounce of a national tide favoring Democrats." Comparing Democratic results in '06 with those of the '02 midterms, she found that the average Democratic vote went up by nearly 5 percent in 2006. But in the thirty-five Congressional districts where fifty-state staffers had worked on the campaigns, Democratic votes had soared by an average of nearly 10 percent.
"Nothing like a little straight analysis to cut through the bullshit, huh?" Kamarck says. "This came out in January and quickly got distributed. I kept running into the big-money guys and they had all read it. It was funny to see how quickly this went through the political fundraising community. They're desperate for something that is hard data as opposed to the nonstop sales pitches they get. And you never heard a peep after that from Carville."
But these are Washington Democrats we're talking about; the story couldn't possibly end as tidily as this. It's far from certain what fate the fifty-state effort will meet when Dean's tenure ends in early 2009. He has insisted he doesn't want another four years--and even if he did, he'd likely be out of luck no matter how the presidential election pans out. If the Democrats lose, Dean will surely catch much of the blame. And if there's a Democrat in the White House, tradition dictates that the President nominates--and effectively selects--the chair. But Jay Parmley, a former Oklahoma state chair and roving DNC organizer in the South, is guardedly optimistic. "A lot of people are fretting, Oh, my gosh, when Howard leaves what's gonna happen?" he says. "I'm not worried about it going away after what we saw in 2006. Whoever wins the White House is going to have to say, Well, this fifty-state strategy helped get me there, and so we're not going to monkey with it too much.
"Doesn't mean they won't, of course."
The real fear is that a second Clinton presidency would mean a return to the Washington-centric ways of the first--to party control by "the very people who ground down the activist base in the 1990s and have continued to hold the party's grassroots in utter contempt," as Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos wrote in the Washington Post. The harshest public critics of Dean's strategy are also among Hillary Clinton's most trusted advisers: Emanuel, Carville, Begala. As Thomas Edsall reported in The New Republic last year, many top Clintonites so loathe and mistrust Dean that their campaign is "laying the groundwork to circumvent the DNC." There is talk of Clinton's team keeping its own field staff with the campaign after winning the primaries, rather than shifting them under the auspices of the DNC for the general election, as has been standard practice. "The DNC is going to be peripheral" if Hillary wins the nomination, one Clinton aide said. Clinton acolyte Harold Ickes Jr. has raised millions for a private voter database, to avoid relying on the DNC's.
But Kamarck believes the Clinton campaign, if Hillary is nominated, would make peace with Dean's DNC for one reason: He's transformed it from the Democrats' perennial problem into one of their biggest assets. "What you typically see is that as soon as a Democratic nominee is chosen, they send some senior eminence down to the DNC," Kamarck says. "The first thing this senior eminence does is complain about what a mess the party is. Because it always was. This time, the presidential candidate is going to come in and be wowed by what they see." And that, in turn, may give Dean leverage to keep organizers in the field throughout 2008, rather than devoting the entire apparatus to the presidential campaign--also the old norm.
"He's earned a seat at the table," says Donna Brazile. "Can't nobody pull his tablecloth and take his knife and fork at this point."
Besides, says Brazile, Democrats have a historic opportunity to start building a lasting national majority by winning back more of the voters--in places like Wilkes County, for one--they started to lose four decades ago. "White swing voters in the South and West are now much more open to independent-minded and liberal Democrats," she says. "They're disgusted with the Republicans. This is the moment to bring them back. Why pull the rug out from them? Why leave that terrain to the Republicans all over again?"