When Howard Dean, fresh off a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination that ended with a scream, announced that he would seek the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, the right-wing echo chamber exploded with delight.
Asserting that Dean would forever consign Democrats to also-ran status, radio ranter Rush Limbaugh shouted: “Please, make him chairman. Please! Please! Please!”
Political strategist turned Fox News blowhard Dick Morris was pithier, declaring that: “In choosing their new national leader, the Democratic Party is publishing a… succinct suicide note. It reads ‘Chairman Howard Dean.'”
That was in early 2005, when Republicans controlled the presidency, enjoyed solid majorities in both chambers of the Congress and were on the march at the local and state government levels. Democrats seemed directionless and dysfunctional, and White House political czar Karl Rove was talking about how America was realigning as a permanently conservative nation.
While other Democratic leaders talked tactics and considered compromises, Dean promised to “show up and fight.”
“The Democratic Party will not win elections or build a lasting majority solely by changing its rhetoric, nor will we win by adopting the other side’s positions,” the former governor of Vermont said when he announced his candidacy for the party job. “We must say what we mean — and mean real change when we say it.”
That scared some folks. But not the 477 members of the Democratic National Committee. The DNC members refused to accept the counsel of Limbaugh and Morris, or that of the Washington-insider Democrats who feared Dean’s edgy approach and swore that the party could not sustain a 50-state strategy.
Dean was elected, and he immediately began throwing punches.
In his first weeks as DNC chair, Dean dismissed Republicans as “evil,” “corrupt” and — while the Terri Schiavo case was making headlines — “brain-dead.” He referred to his radio nemesis as “drug-snorting Rush Limbaugh” and, which other top Democrats shied away from saying George Bush and his aides lied about the reasons for attacking Iraq, the DNC chair told television interviewers that: “I think the Downing Street Memos and other pieces of evidence, including the 9/11 Commission, have indicated that the administration was not truthful to the American people about how we got to Iraq. I think that’s a fact.”
Dean did not play the game of politics in the way that White House political czar Karl Rove and his media expected. In fact, Dean did not treat politics as a game.
When the DNC chair said, “I hate what the Republicans are doing to this country, I really do,” everyone knew he meant it. And, as it turned out, Americans were coming around to the same conclusion.
How do we know?
These are the last days of 2008, when Democrats control the White House, Congress and the majority of statehouses. Now that Democrats have won 53 percent of the popular vote in the race for the presidency — the best total for the party since 1964 — and 69 percent of the Electoral College (with votes from formerly red states such as Colorado, Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia), andnow that the party has picked up once-Republican House seats in Mississippi and Louisiana and once-Republican Senate seats in North Carolina and Virginia (and, come December, perhaps Georgia), Dean’s 50-state strategy is looking pretty smart. And his edgy style seems to have been the right fit for a nation that has since 2005 grown steadily angrier over Republican misrule.
Dean is now preparing to step down as DNC chair, as he always said he would after one term.
Dean is no fool; he understand that DNC chairs do not call their own shots when the party controls the White House and he is not inclined to take political direction from others — especially his sometimes nemesis, 50-state-strategy critic and incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. (Although, it should be noted, Dean might be inclined to cooperate on policy matters with Emanuel, should Obama decide to make the good doctor secretary of Health and Human Services.)
The fact is that Dean’s work is done. He was an essential player in the transformation of the Democratic Party from what former Labor Secretary Robert Reich described back in 2005 — “essentially a glorified fund-raising mechanism” — into the clearly-defined “movement” party that Barack Obama would lead in 2008.
With that 50-state strategy, his full embrace of netroots activism and, above all, his refusal to pull punches, Dean made being a Democrat mean something. That turned out to be the cure for what ailed a party that has benefited immeasurably from the doctor’s able treatment of its condition.