PETER O. ZIERLEIN*
It’s a week after the election and Howard Dean is speaking at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, giving an unusually full-throated argument for Democratic Party organizing in Oklahoma, the only state where John McCain beat Barack Obama in every single county. “I don’t know when we’re going to win Oklahoma, but we have a Democratic governor from Oklahoma, we have a Democratic Congressman from Oklahoma and what we need to do is go to Oklahoma, show up and explain ourselves in terms of the values that Oklahomans hold.” Those values, Dean argued, aren’t so different from those of New York City or anywhere else commonly thought of as Democratic territory. It just so happens that Oklahoma’s aforementioned governor, Brad Henry, had given Dean a pair of cowboy boots, which he wore, to somewhat hilarious effect, throughout the Democratic convention in Denver.
The former Vermont governor and chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has become an unlikely advocate for Democrats across the country, particularly in so-called red America. His passion for showing up in unexpected locales is not based on wishful thinking or stubborn naivete but rather political necessity. Dean’s favorite quote, which he repeats over and over, is Louis Pasteur’s “Chance favors the prepared mind.” The way he sees it, you never know when any state, even the Sooner State, might get a jolt of blue. After all, just look at what happened in 2006, when Democrats flipped both houses of Congress. Or this past November, when Barack Obama won Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia, along with three previously red Western states, and the party picked up Congressional seats in places like Alabama, Alaska, Idaho and Mississippi.
It almost feels like ancient history, but “four years ago the Democratic Party was in a very different condition,” Doctor Dean says at the beginning of his talk at the Y. Republicans had just retained the White House, gained four seats in the Senate and three in the House, and held twenty-eight governorships. Bill Frist was Senate majority leader, Dennis Hastert was House Speaker, George Bush’s approval rating was at a healthy 50 percent and Karl Rove planned a “permanent Republican majority.” It was “not a fun time to be a Democrat,” Dean cracks.
How quickly things change. Four years later Democrats elected Obama with 67 million votes. They picked up seven seats in the Senate (with Minnesota still pending at press time)and twenty-one in the House, and they hold sixty of ninety-nine state legislative chambers. Obama’s extraordinary campaign and Bush’s remarkable mishandling of the country’s domestic and foreign policies deserve much of the credit for the Democratic Party’s resurgence, but so does Howard Dean. Before virtually any major politician, Dean not only sensed that the era of Republican ascendancy could be stopped but also how to do it, first through his trailblazing though unsuccessful presidential campaign of 2004, and then through his forceful stewardship of the party as DNC chair since 2005. “Dean gave the party a mission and a focus,” says Paul Tewes, a top Obama strategist who ran day-to-day operations at the DNC during the general election. “That’s a big deal when you’re out of power.” DNC member Donna Brazile calls Dean “one of the unsung heroes of this moment.”