The Dean Legacy

The Dean Legacy

The DNC chair has energized aging, ailing or previously nonexistent state parties.


On November 7, 2006, all the top Democrats graced the stage of the Hyatt Regency ballroom in Washington for a big election-night victory party. All of them, that is, except Howard Dean, chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The party leadership had accused Dean of spending too much money on rebuilding moribund parties in red states and not enough on key Congressional races where Democratic pickups could strengthen their narrow majority. The results that night, as Democrats recaptured Congress, seemed to settle the argument in Dean’s favor. But key Democrats, including Representative Rahm Emanuel, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, weren’t satisfied, and Dean opted to stay away from the celebration, doing TV interviews instead. A week later, Democratic strategist James Carville, another prominent Clintonite, labeled the DNC leadership “Rumsfeldian in its competence,” and called on Dean to resign. He floated the name of Harold Ford Jr., now chair of the right-leaning Democratic Leadership Council, as a replacement. There was rampant speculation inside the Beltway that Carville wasn’t offering an unsolicited opinion but rather carrying water for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.

A few months earlier, The New Republic had reported that Clinton’s camp was “laying the groundwork to circumvent the DNC in the event that Clinton wins the nomination.” This shadow DNC had a number of integral parts: adviser Harold Ickes would develop state-of-the-art technology to help Clinton reach prospective voters; EMILY’s List and Clinton’s allies in organized labor would launch an unprecedented effort to turn out supporters, especially women voters; former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe would raise untold sums from wealthy donors and the business community; and communications honcho Howard Wolfson would direct an unrelenting war room. Ever since 1992 the Clintons had used the DNC as an outpost for raising money from big donors, and funding candidates had taken precedence over nurturing progressive organizers. That model would continue into ’08. Dean could remain at the DNC as a figurehead but only if he stayed in line.

And then the effort to marginalize Dean collapsed. Partly it’s because the party’s Congressional takeover–and a subsequent study by Harvard’s Elaine Kamarck documenting Dean’s contributions toward that end–eventually silenced the Carville-ites. Partly it’s because Barack Obama forced the Clintons to devote all their resources to fending off his insurgent candidacy. But another reason the DNC-in-exile never got off the ground was Dean himself. Dean is no longer a marginalized figure, the butt of “Dean scream” jokes, but a man with a powerful constituency in regions where his fifty-state strategy has energized aging, ailing or previously nonexistent state parties. His support to these parties has not only strengthened them but has created an independent power base for Dean himself.

Dean has remained fastidiously neutral and low-key in this presidential cycle. Yet a number of his top supporters believe the Clinton-Obama contest has become a referendum on the kind of grassroots party building and citizen empowerment Dean pioneered as a presidential candidate and continued as DNC chair. On that issue most Deaniacs, not surprisingly, side with Obama. “Ever since the TV era began in 1960, every single presidential campaign in America has been top-down,” says Joe Trippi, Dean’s ’04 campaign guru and an adviser to John Edwards before he dropped out of the race. “Only two have been bottom-up. One was Dean. The other is Obama.”

The race for the Democratic nomination is a window into how the candidates view the future of the party, which is being shaped in large part by Dean’s efforts. Are Clinton and Obama similarly committed to Dean’s fifty-state strategy? How much faith would each, as the Democratic nominee, put in the party’s grassroots? In the Internet era, the party is less about elder statesmen sitting in Washington than millions of people across the country organizing locally around issues and candidates. Dean and Obama have understood how the party is changing–and have embraced it. Clinton, thus far, has not.

Howard Dean and Bill Clinton were both pragmatic, moderate governors of rural states who shared an affinity for balanced budgets and free trade. But ever since Dean became a presidential candidate, his relationship with the Clintons has been rocky. His campaign was a striking repudiation of Clintonian centrism, which had urged Democrats to support the Iraq War and throw piles of money at TV ads in a few key swing states every two to four years rather than systematically invest in long-term party building, from the local level up. The Clintons even urged their old friend Gen. Wesley Clark to run against Dean. When Dean entered the race for DNC chair in January 2005, Bill Clinton asked McAuliffe to consider staying on. When he declined, Governors Bill Richardson and Ed Rendell were floated as possible replacements. In the end, the Clintons remained officially neutral, and Ickes, a key Clinton ambassador to the party’s liberal wing, endorsed Dean for chair, giving his candidacy a huge boost. But the brief honeymoon didn’t hold.

In his final years as DNC chair, McAuliffe had developed a list of Democratic donors and fundraisers. When Dean came in, state party chairs, who found McAuliffe’s list ill suited to their needs, asked Dean to build a national voter database. He hired new consultants and spent $10 million expanding the voter file. The move angered McAuliffe, and Ickes launched his own database, which was widely viewed as a buttress to Clinton’s presidential campaign and a challenge to Dean. “It’s unclear what the DNC is doing,” Ickes told the Washington Post in March 2006. The fight was more technical than ideological, yet it represented a public signal of “no confidence” in the DNC by the party’s Beltway establishment, the Post reported.

Tensions have cooled since then, and both Clintons have voiced their support for Dean’s fifty-state strategy. Yet in a larger sense, Hillary’s candidacy represents the polar opposite of what Dean built as a candidate and party chair: her campaign is dominated by an inner circle of top strategists, with little room for grassroots input; it hasn’t adapted well to new Internet tools like Facebook and MySpace; it tends to raise big contributions from a small group of high rollers rather than from large numbers of small donors; and it is less inclined to expand the base of the party.

On a number of occasions during this cycle, the Clinton campaign has questioned the DNC’s authority. The first split came during the Nevada caucuses, when Clinton allies challenged the DNC over the validity of caucus sites that they thought favored Obama. The courts ruled in the DNC’s favor, but the showdown in Nevada looked like small potatoes compared with the growing debate over whether to seat the Michigan and Florida delegates. The Clinton campaign’s PR blitz in favor of seating them was a clear affront to Dean’s leadership. “The DNC rule is the rule, and it’s not going to change just because Clinton says we’re going to change it,” says one Dean confidant.

The DNC has played for time, urging the states to hold new contests or appeal to the DNC’s credentials committee in June. “I have to be the referee, and my job is to bring people together at the end, because we cannot have a divided convention,” Dean told The Nation. In an earlier interview, he’d said that if there’s no nominee by April, he’s prepared to get the two candidates in a room together and “work out what’s best for the country.” Dean, like many Democrats, is hoping such an arrangement won’t be necessary.

In contrast to Clinton’s campaign, Obama’s–with its hundreds of thousands of small donors, Internet buzz and red-state appeal–reflects to a great extent the realization of Dean’s ideals. Dean’s argument for how to rebuild and expand the party base for the long term found its perfect short-term exponent in Obama, whose appeal to independents and liberal Republicans and talk of “unity” is planting Democratic roots in unfamiliar places. “The Obama for President campaign is what all of us hoped Dean for President would become,” says Steve McMahon, a former top Dean strategist who’s stayed neutral in ’08. “Obama is Dean 2.0, dramatically updated to reflect the emergence of the grassroots.”

Stylistically and rhetorically, the brash and rumpled Dean and the smooth and graceful Obama couldn’t be more different. Yet the link between the two dates back to ’04, when the offshoot of Dean’s presidential campaign, Democracy for America, supported Obama in the Illinois Senate race. Dean’s advisers admit that Obama is a more inspirational and disciplined presidential candidate than was Dean, able to excite the Democratic base while bringing in new voters, energizing a new crop of organizers and expanding the electoral map. This is borne out by Obama’s remarkable performance thus far in red states like Idaho, Alaska and Alabama–places where Dean has invested heavily. “From a progressive who wants to see Democrats compete in all fifty states, you’d have to give the nod to Obama,” says Trippi.

In his sprint across the country before Super Tuesday, Obama wisely hit places where the party had barely existed years before. “They told me there weren’t any Democrats in Idaho,” Obama told a raucous crowd of 14,000 in Boise. “I didn’t believe them.” On Super Tuesday Obama won fifteen of Idaho’s eighteen delegates and virtually swept the Midwest and Mountain West.

Besides a desire to push the party away from a strictly swing-state mentality, Dean and Obama share a commitment to the nuts-and-bolts of grassroots organizing. On the stump Obama is quick to stress his roots as a community organizer and always thanks his precinct captains, who routinely introduce him at campaign events. “Change doesn’t happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up,” he now says in his stump speech. Obama’s organizing has been greatly enhanced by new technologies like YouTube, Facebook and MySpace (Friendster had just arrived when Dean was running). “We pioneered it and Obama perfected it,” Trippi says. Obama embraced elements of the new politics, hiring the co-founder of Facebook, for example; but other efforts came from the grassroots–just as with the Dean campaign–as supporters organized themselves online and on the ground. The net effect is Obama’s large base of small donors, who are enthusiastic supporters he can tap again and again. Ninety percent of the $28 million he raised online in January, for example, came in donations of $100 or less. Obama has fused a tightknit group of advisers with a mass of ordinary people, creating what Trippi calls “command and control at the top while empowering the bottom to make a difference.”

Trippi’s book The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is required reading in a class that Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, teaches at Northwestern University. If the Obama campaign naturally understood what Dean was trying to do, even though Dean’s candidacy ultimately fizzled, the Clintons did not. “They looked at ’04 and said, If Howard Dean lost, those tools must not have worked,” Trippi says. He cites Clinton’s unwillingness to compete all-out in red-state caucuses as a main reason her campaign is in such a predicament. Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos dubbed Clinton’s approach–and subsequent discounting of her losses in red America–the “insult 40 states” strategy. While the Obama campaign prepared for the long haul, Clinton poured most of her resources into a few key early states, expecting to have the nomination wrapped up by Super Tuesday. “It’s not a very long run,” Clinton predicted in late December. “It’ll be over by February 5.”

Whoever wins the nomination would be well advised to keep Dean around through the general election. More important than the money he can raise is the consistency he represents, among the netroots and state party activists. “If the Clintons or anyone came in after winning the nomination and said, ‘Thank you, Howard. You can go now,’ it would be a very divisive and fractious fight,” says one Dean adviser. “That’s the last thing they’ll need.”

Because of the small number of Congressional battlegrounds in ’06, strategists in DC like Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel could at least make a persuasive case against the fifty-state strategy. But this fall, because of the vastly expanded number of competitive races, they’ll have a much tougher brief. With contested Senate races and statewide contests (redistricting happens in 2010 and ’11) in addition to a presidential election, many more states will be in play, strengthening the logic of the fifty-state strategy. “The tone and temperature of this argument will be diminished compared to ’06,” says Joe Andrew, 1991-01 chair of the DNC and a Clinton supporter. “There will be enough money to go around.”

The way the ’08 race has played out has made believers out of past Dean critics, like Clinton war room veteran Paul Begala. “I’m not a big Howard Dean fan,” Begala admits. “But a lot of good things that are happening in this campaign have happened because of Dean.” Begala credits him with pushing Democrats to oppose the war in Iraq, cultivating young voters and small donors, and urging the party to compete across the map.

Tradition dictates that whoever wins the White House will install his or her own regime in the DNC. Dean says that if a Democrat wins in November, he does not want to hang around the building past 2009. Yet few in the party believe it’s possible, or preferable, to go back to targeting a dozen swing states every two or four years. “You cannot lurch from one election to the next with no game plan,” Dean says. “I do believe the Democratic President is going to want a permanent political operation, and I think we’re going to leave a very strong one here.” Dean says the state party chairs have already persuaded Obama and Clinton to commit to funding the fifty-state strategy, which at a cost of $4 million to $5 million a year is a tiny fraction of the $300 million budgeted by the DNC for ’08. “The one thing they should not get rid of is the fifty-state strategy,” says Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. “We need to do more, not less.”

Dean had the vision, but others will get or share the credit. It took an Obama to realize the potential of the Internet and grassroots organizing to transform politics. And it will take the commitment of future DNC chairs to the fifty-state strategy to continue building the party from the ground up. “You know the expression, to be a prophet without honor in your own land,” says Steve Grossman, Dean’s former campaign chair. “That’s Howard Dean.”

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