Political Pulse February 2005

Back in the Ring

Howard Dean's election as chairman of the DNC shows that Democrats are ready to stand and fight.
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"There are no second acts in American lives," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote. He was wrong. And Howard Dean proves it.

Dean's political life on the national stage has already had three acts. Act One: The hot new face of 2003. Act Two: The laughingstock of 2004. Act Three: The Democratic Party conqueror of 2005.

One word captured the message of Dean's presidential campaign: Empowerment. "Our campaign empowers ordinary people, many of whom have not been in politics for years, to get involved," Dean declared in Iowa.

To win the support of the Democratic National Committee, whom did Dean promise to empower? The answer was provided by the turning point in that campaign, when state Democratic chairs reversed the recommendation of their own executive committee and endorsed Dean. According to Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, a Dean enthusiast, "His support came overwhelmingly from Democratic state chairs, who have felt out of the Washington loop with the Democratic National Committee."

What impressed the state chairs was Dean's refusal to go on the defensive after he lost the Democratic presidential nomination. Abercrombie calls it "the great unreported political story." He explains, "Dean formed Democracy for America, which took the Internet foundation and the enthusiasm [of his presidential campaign] ... and made it a national campaign. He set the tone for what he's going to do as Democratic Party chairman with Democracy for America."

Democracy for America delivered money and workers to grassroots Democratic campaigns all over the country. "What Howard did," Abercrombie said, "was to go out and help elect and support Democratic candidates for boards of education, for state legislatures, helping to build local parties, going out to speak all across the country on behalf of the Democratic Party chairs out there." As Dean put it to Democrats in Washington, "If we can't elect people running for city council and county commissioner and school board and state assembly, if we can't elect those people, then we're never going to elect a president of the United States."

Pledges like that impressed Rick Coplen, chair of the Prince William County, Va., Democratic Party. Coplen told CNN, "The real value of Howard Dean for the Democratic Party is not so much his message, but his leadership ability and his ability to raise funds." Coplen described Dean as "very, very strong in terms of his administrative skills, his management skills."

The Gallup Organization asked 223 members of the DNC what went wrong last year. Outgoing party Chairman Terry McAuliffe had his answer. "We had the biggest vote turnout we've ever had," McAuliffe said. "We ran against an incumbent president while at war. We have never beaten an incumbent president while at war."

Members of the Democratic National Committee agreed. Their No. 1 reason—out of four choices offered—was that Republicans ran an incumbent during wartime (49 percent). Only 20 percent said that Democrats lost because they didn't match the Republicans' grassroots efforts. Even fewer blamed Democratic nominee John Kerry's weaknesses as a candidate (16 percent). And almost no committee members said it was because of the party's issue positions (7 percent). There's nothing wrong with what we believe, Democrats say.

That is what the party's new chairman says, too. "We ought not to change our faith," Dean said on February 9. "We need to talk about who we are as Democrats, and we need to be proud to be Democrats every step of the way." Sounds like a mandate to keep left.

But a majority of committee members interviewed by Gallup said they would rather see the Democratic Party become more moderate (52 percent) than more liberal (23 percent). By 2-to-1, they thought the key to future Democratic victory was reaching out to undecided and swing voters rather than mobilizing the party base (61 to 30 percent).

So what do Democratic National Committee members see in Dean? Not ideology. "It is not the Democratic National Committee chairman that sets policy," McAuliffe said. "I have never voted on Iraq or tax policy." When Gallup asked committee members which approach Democrats should take with President Bush and his Republican Party, two-thirds said they should try to defeat the Republican agenda and draw clear distinctions between the parties, rather than try to find areas of compromise to get things done (68 to 24 percent).

What committee members see in Dean is a fighter. Donnie Fowler, one of Dean's former competitors for the chairmanship, said, "Just like I think the party should do, Howard Dean stands up and fights back for what he believes in." The choice of Dean is less a statement about ideology than about strategy. The statement is: Democrats are ready to stand and fight.

Dean put together two Democratic constituencies that feel disempowered. One is liberals, who have not been so totally shut out of power since the 1920s. The other is local party leaders, who felt disempowered by the DNC. In Abercrombie's view, "The Democratic National Committee might as well have been on the moon as far as connection to real grassroots Democratic activity is concerned."

The Dean takeover is a little like the takeover of the Republican Party by conservative activists in the 1960s. Conservatives felt disempowered after 30 years in the wilderness. In the short run, the Goldwater-era takeover looked like a disaster for the GOP. But in the long run, look at what happened.

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William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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