In Our Orbit: Dean’s Way

In Our Orbit: Dean’s Way

Ari Berman’s Herding Donkeys shows how Howard Dean’s unsuccessful bid for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination was the foundation for Barack Obama’s victory in 2008.


During the run-up to the midterm elections, the overwhelming question has been whether Congressional Democrats will retain their majority. Although it’s not uncommon for the party in power to lose ground during the midterms, the prospects for Democrats this year are particularly bleak. The president and his Congressional majority are contending with a lack of enthusiasm among Democratic voters who see little evidence of the change they hoped for when they voted for Barack Obama in 2008. If any supporters are still chanting "Yes, we can," they have been drowned out by the exhortations of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin to "take back America" and the din of commentary about Park51, the planned Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan branded the "Ground Zero mosque" by its critics.

Ari Berman’s Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $26) analyzes the Democratic Party’s success in 2008 and offers solid insights into why so many are disillusioned with Obama in 2010. Berman, a correspondent for The Nation, argues that Howard Dean’s unsuccessful bid for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination was the foundation for Obama’s victory. Campaign technologies and strategies that Dean developed but whose potential went unrealized would be refined and employed more successfully by Obama. Berman writes that the Dean campaign "built a plethora of new tools"—such as transmitting campaign information via text message and connecting Dean organizers to one another on a social networking site—"that would fundamentally change political campaigns and the nature of public communication." Not only did Dean’s campaign grasp the importance of the burgeoning blogosphere to policy wonks; it proved that the Internet could be used for organizing people online and bringing them together offline too. Dean was the first politician to raise large sums of money through small donations online.

Although both Dean and Obama played to widespread public disappointment with George W. Bush and his policies, the most important cue Obama took from Dean was to pursue the "fifty-state strategy." Berman notes that in 2004 "Democrats shifted toward hapless regionalism"; they abandoned the South in an effort to devote resources to more winnable states. Dean, however, wanted to go to "places where nobody else goes," like North Carolina, which Democrats like John Kerry ignored, figuring they were too red to turn blue. This spirit of inclusion would be the hallmark of Obama’s campaign; as he stated at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, "there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America—there’s the United States of America."

Herding Donkeys blends a real-time behind-the-scenes account of the Dean and Obama campaigns with Berman’s analysis of events. Just as Obama framed his campaign as being not about him but his supporters, Herding Donkeys is about not only Obama and Dean but also their grassroots bases. Berman is at his best when recounting the stories of these organizers and the communities in which they worked during the election. One such organizer was Joe Perez, a former bus driver from Greeley, Colorado. After an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid of a meatpacking plant resulted in the deportation of dozens of Greeley residents, 63-year-old Perez decided to organize for the first time in his life, starting the group Greeley for Obama and running the operation out of his garage. "The campaign in Greeley became a point of pride among Hispanic activists," Berman notes.

Berman argues that for all of its innovation and inspiration, the Obama campaign was myopic: "Obama’s movement…ever adequately prepared for the day after his election." Obama had united a diverse base, including many who did not identify as Democrats, at a time when America hungered for, yes, hope, change and inclusion. But in attracting a wide variety of voters and supporting candidates across the Democratic spectrum, Democrats lost ideological cohesion on issues like healthcare reform, abortion, gun control and gay marriage. The enthusiasm was for Obama, not necessarily his platform.

Those voters who did support Obama’s progressive objectives had formed the base of the campaign’s grassroots organization; but once in office, Obama seemingly turned his back on them. He staffed the White House with Washington insiders and snubbed Howard Dean along the way, which Berman largely attributes to chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s antipathy to Dean. Emanuel embodies the inside-the-Beltway attitude that has disappointed many erstwhile Obama supporters. He famously referred to Democrats who were organizing for more progressive healthcare reform as "fucking retarded." As Dean told Berman, "That’s basically saying to your own people—you got us here, now FU."

For Berman, all is not lost. "It’s not too late for Obama to turn his presidency around, reconnect with the supporters who propelled him to the White House, attack the gridlock in Washington and reclaim his ambitious legislative agenda," he wrote in September. Herding Donkeys stresses the importance of grassroots supporters to Obama’s win in 2008 and demonstrates that a return to such bottom-up organizing could be the key to success, not only for electing Democrats in 2010 and beyond but for pursuing the bold policy initiatives the country so desperately needs.

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