The Nation’s Ari Berman, author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics (now available at fine bookstores everywhere) launched his promotional tour Tuesday night with Gov. Howard Dean, the former presidential candidate and Democratic National Committee chairman. The book chronicles Dean’s ascent into Party royalty, as Berman traces the origins of Barack Obama’s winning campaign strategy back through the governor’s 2004 presidential bid. Though Dean was for some time considered the Democratic front-runner, Nation Editor-in-Chief Katrina vanden Heuvel quipped that he was “stopped in the cornfields” – referring, of course, to Dean’s third-place finish in the Iowa Caucus, which derailed his pursuit of the nomination.
But whatever his campaign missteps, Dean went on to fundamentally restructure the way the Democratic Party did business during his subsequent tenure as DNC chair. “We had no spine, we had no money, we had no computers,” Dean said Tuesday night of the dire situation he inherited in 2005. And if the Democrats’ victories in 2006 and 2008 weren’t testament enough to the success of his “50-state strategy,” Dean remarked that now even the Republicans – having fielded Congressional candidates in a staggering number of races this year – are modeling their current electoral efforts after what he accomplished.
As is now well-known, not every Democratic power-player took kindly to Dean’s vision for the party, most notably among them Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s departed chief of staff. Though Emanuel was largely responsible for shutting Dean out of the White House, the governor nevertheless spoke with a certain lightheartedness about their relationship – though he declined to address Emanuel’s just-announced Chicago mayoral bid. Dean instead reserved much of his scorn for the media’s coverage of their so-called feud, saying reporters today “look at politics like a football game.”
“They’re as responsible as George Bush for screwing up this country,” he said of the popular media, decrying corporate ownership of so much television, print, and online news.
Dean also touched on why the success of the Obama campaign hasn’t necessarily translated into the success of the Obama White House. “There are too many insiders on the senior staff,” he said. “They’ve all been in Washington for 20 years.”
The culture in the capital is “parochial,” he continued. “They don’t think like ordinary Americans.” A deeply engrained Washington ethos of gamesmanship, posturing, and career advancement – as Dean made clear – is what has really stood in the way of genuine progressive reform over the past year and a half.
The governor also offered his thoughts on the field of Republican presidential candidates in 2012. Sarah Palin “can look you in the eye and tell you something you know isn’t true,” he said, but he urged Democrats to take her seriously. Mitt Romney was previously Dean’s pick for likeliest to win the nomination, but he said the Massachusetts governor will have trouble explaining his record on health care to the Republican electorate in light of recent reforms. “ObamaCare is RomneyCare,” Dean said, not intending to convey enthusiasm.
He also had choice words for lingering members of the Democratic punditry establishment, saying longtime strategists James Carville and Stan Greenberg were "useless," and that Hillary Clinton – after losing to Barack Obama in the 2008 Iowa Caucus – was "badmouthed" behind the scenes by party stalwarts who publicly maintained their allegiance to her. Dean also said Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, having rustled too many feathers over the course his term, will be "gone in January."
Visit Ari Berman’s website for information on his book tour.
Jennifer O’Mahony contributed to this report.