Where is Howard Dean? Republicans certainly haven’t forgotten him, with candidate after candidate for RNC chair and local GOP leaders belatedly praising Dean (after mocking him for years) and calling for their own version of the fifty-state strategy, which revived the Democratic Party across the country, starting at the grassroots–especially in long-forgotten red states, many of which turned purple or blue in 2006 and ’08. What was once a controversial point has now become obvious: Dean’s trailblazing presidential campaign and tenure as DNC chair laid the foundation for Barack Obama’s historic fifty-state campaign. Dean took one of the most thankless jobs in Washington and transformed the way the party did business and won elections, without pomp or pretension, which for a politician of his stature is remarkable.
Yet for all his successes, Dean has become a virtual stranger in his own party, with no place in the incoming Obama administration. On January 8, the day Obama announced his choice of Virginia Governor Tim Kaine to lead the DNC, Dean was on a trip to American Samoa–the last territory he had yet to visit as party chair–leading to speculation, subsequently confirmed, that he’d been snubbed by the Obama team, even as Obama publicly praised Dean as a “visionary and effective leader.” Moreover, Dean has been passed over for cabinet slots such as secretary of health and human services and surgeon general, which concern his original passion and area of expertise, healthcare reform. If Rahm Emanuel, who bitterly opposed the fifty-state strategy in ’06, can be Obama’s chief of staff, then Dean should have a place somewhere in Obama’s administration. That would be a true “team of rivals.” It’s a distressing sign when Bill Kristol and Obama’s conservative dining buddies get treated better than Dean.
If he’s not on the inside, then we hope Dean will stay active on the outside. His confidants say Dean plans to enter the private sector, teach, give speeches about healthcare reform and help political parties around the world succeed at bottom-up, progressive politics. It’s our hope that Dean will continue to oxygenate the grassroots at home, working with groups like Democracy for America (run by his brother Jim), Wellstone Action, and Progressive Majority to recruit and train the next generation of progressive leaders. As Obama said in his January speech at the DNC, “We must build a movement for change that can endure beyond a single election, and that will require redoubling our efforts to reach out to Americans throughout our fifty states, north and south, east and west.” Dean still has a vital role to play in such an effort.