It was inevitable, following the election, that some major publication would write an article about how Obama will face a primary challenge from the left in 2012. Politico, not surprisingly, got there first, with a column by Roger Simon today wondering whether Howard Dean could defeat Obama.
Buried in the piece is the rather large caveat that Dean doesn’t actually think such a challenge is a good idea. “Nobody is going to beat him [for the nomination] in 2012,” Dean said. “All that would do is weaken the president.”
Dean’s not going to run against Obama in 2012, nor should he. But that doesn’t mean Obama couldn’t learn a thing or two from Dean’s presidential campaign and chairmanship of the Democratic Party. Those lessons just might help Obama turn his ailing presidency around.
Dean’s innovative insurgent presidential campaign in 2003–04 provided the manual—albeit a messy, imperfect one—for a bottom-up mass movement in democratic politics, and his fifty-state strategy as chair of the Democratic National Committee provided the foundation for electing Democrats across the map in 2006 and 2008. The Obama campaign embraced and expanded both of these visionary ideas. “We pioneered it and Obama perfected it,” said Dean’s former campaign manager Joe Trippi. Some even called Obama "Dean 2.0."
Yet after the election, Obama quickly dispatched the insurgents—Dean chief among them, who was excluded from a plum job—and assembled an administration that looked surprisingly like a third Clinton term. Dean's snub came to signify a broader abandonment of the party's grassroots base, especially as Obama packed his White House with well-worn veterans of previous administrations, who embodied longevity over innovation and connections over change. Obama demobilized the very grassroots political apparatus that proved so successful during his campaign. “The Obama people ran the best campaign I've seen in all my life in politics," Dean told me. "But they couldn't translate it into government." Nor did they really try to, as I detail in my new book, Herding Donkeys
In the first two years of his presidency, the dialogue between Obama and his supporters has been strictly one-way: here’s the policy. Go support it. “You can't dictate to your base what's going to happen,” Dean says. “It's got to be a two-way deal, and it hasn't been." Moving forward, Dean wants Obama to stand up and fight for some core principles, contrasting his agenda with the extremity of the new Congress, and appear like he’s committed to changing Washington, rather than just surrounding himself with the same old crew of Washington insiders.
LBJ faced a primary because of the war in Vietnam. Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter over a sluggish economy. Though Dean does disagree with Obama on some policy fronts—most notably, the lack of a public option in healthcare reform—these differences are as much about style as substance. Dean and many other Democrats liked the Obama they saw during the campaign better than the Obama they see in the White House—and want him to return to the grassroots approach he employed so effectively two years ago. It needn’t take a primary challenge for Obama to recognize that he can no longer take his base for granted. The results on Tuesday should have been enough of a wake-up call.