Dean 3.0: What the Tea Party Can Learn from Democrats in 2010 and Beyond

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"The first rule of change is controversy," famed community organizer Saul Alinsky once said. "You can't get away from it, for the simple reason of, all issues are controversial. Change means movement, movement means friction, friction means heat, and heat means controversy." Alinsky is not the only liberal icon Tea Party Republicans now admire. They've also belatedly fallen in love with Howard Dean, who they generously mocked for the better part of a decade until Democrats picked up six governorships, 14 Senate seats, 50 House seats and 15 state legislative chambers under his tenure as chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

Tea Partiers have now appropriated the insurgent language of Dean's presidential campaign, including its slogan, "Take Back America," and have begun to take over local Republican parties at the grassroots level--just as Dean urged Democrats to do after his campaign ended in flames. They've also emulated Dean's 50-state strategy, which unexpectedly helped elect Democrats across the map, particularly in long-ignored red states, by boosting local parties in 2006 and 2008. This year, for example, Republicans are running more candidates for Congress than ever before. "President Obama and Speaker Pelosi can thank Howard Dean's '50-state strategy' for laying the ground work for the Democrat landslide in 2008," Tea Party strategist and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, chairman of FreedomWorks, said earlier this year. "The Tea Party movement is much the same, and Tea Party groups exist in every state and city across the country." If Barack Obama was "Dean 2.0," then the Tea Partiers are the third manifestation. In 2010, they've out-innovated the Democrats.

Interestingly enough, many establishment politicians initially discounted the power of the Tea Party, as they did to the Deaniacs a few years ago. "Netroots protests dragged the Democratic Party kicking and screaming into 2006 and 2008," wrote GOP web strategists Patrick Ruffini and Mindy Finn earlier this year. "Frustrated with the president and health-care reform, the conservative 'tea party' movement has done the same for the Republicans this year." There are some crucial differences between the two movements--namely, the amount of corporate money that is now fueling Tea Party-backed candidates--but the lessons from the Dean era are quite applicable to the Tea Party today. Here are four of them:


Lesson #1: Grassroots Politics Works

Political insiders discounted Dean and Obama until both candidates raised staggering amounts of money online and, in the case of Obama, translated that to a durable and expansive on-the-ground campaign organization. Similarly, few predicted the Tea Party would command the health-care debate during the congressional recess of August 2009. Scott Brown's upset Senate victory in Massachusetts was even more unexpected and proved yet again that grassroots mobilization can propel an insurgent candidate to victory, validating the strategy pursued by Tea Party activists. Brown raised $12 million online from 157,000 individual donors in the last two weeks of the race.

Subsequent events have shown that Brown's victory was no fluke. Both Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell raised $1 million the day after their unlikely primary wins, and Angle just posted an incredible $14 million haul in the third quarter of 2010, which further increases her odds of unseating Harry Reid in Nevada. "Online enthusiasm can't be separated from offline momentum," writes Ruffini.

Nor is a Tea Party endorsement a kiss of death, in the same way that the Deaniacs didn't doom the Democrats. After Dean endorsed Obama in the Illinois Senate race in '04, Republicans tried to use Dean as ammo against Obama. "With a record and an agenda that's far outside the mainstream, it's no surprise that Barack Obama was endorsed last week by Howard (I-have-a-scream) Dean," said a spokesman for Obama's then-GOP opponent, Jack Ryan. That argument proved useless, just as Democratic attempts to vilify the Tea Party haven't worked very well, either. A recent poll of voters in congressional districts held by freshman Democrats showed a net-favorable opinion of the Tea Party. 55 percent of Independents, a crucial swing bloc, said a Tea Party endorsement would not effect their votes. What's been most surprising about 2010 is how well far-right Republicans like Angle, Kentucky's Rand Paul, Colorado's Ken Buck, Wisconsin's Ron Johnson, and Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey are faring in the polls.

Lesson #2: Don't Overplay Your Hand

There are, however, a few notable exceptions to rule #1. For the most topical example, see O'Donnell, Christine. In Delaware, Tea Partiers took out a surefire Republican senator in Mike Castle and replaced him with an almost-definite loser, all in the name of ideological purity. As a result, Democrats may retain control of the U.S. Senate in November. The same thing happened in New York's 23rd Congressional district in November 2009, where the Tea Party-supported candidate, Doug Hoffman, ousted GOP frontrunner Dede Scozzafava and handed the seat to a Democrat, Bill Owens. And history may repeat itself in the Florida governor's race and other pivotal contests where Tea Party ideologues with questionable credentials knocked off polished Republican frontrunners in the primaries. Sometimes frontrunners are there for a reason.

Lessons #3: Even Insurgents Must Be Pragmatic

Even though he was stereotyped as a left-wing radical, Dean aggressively courted conservative red-state voters as DNC chair and famously said, while running for president, that he wanted "to be the candidate for guys with confederate flags in their pickup trucks." In 2006, Dean challenged then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel over how the party should win elections, not on what kinds of candidates they should support. Dean's local organizers supported some of Rahm's favorite candidates, such as Brad Ellsworth in southern Indiana, who opposed gun control, abortion rights, gay marriage and immigration reform.

The Tea Party is far more ideological than Dean ever was. They've tried, in a few instances, to adopt "Tea Party Democrats" like House candidate Mike Olivero in West Virgnia and Congressman Walt Minnick of Idaho. Minnick, another unlikely success story of the Democrats' 50-state strategy in 2008, has voted against every major legislative initiative pushed by President Obama and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, including the stimulus, healthcare reform, cap and trade, and financial reform. He initially accepted the endorsement of the Tea Party Express but repudiated it after the group's then-chairman, Mark Williams, penned a racially inflammatory blog post. For now, the Tea Party is whiter, wealthier, more male-dominated and more conservative than the country as a whole. That might not be a huge liability in a midterm election--whose voting populace tends to skew older and more conservative as a rule--but in future elections the Tea Party base will need to expand in order to keep up with Obama's rainbow coalition.

Lesson #4: Be Careful What You Wish For

Nancy Pelosi has had a hell of a time keeping many of the conservative Democrats elected in 2006 and 2008 in line on crucial votes. But her struggles will be a walk in the park compared to John Boehner or Mitch McConnell's tango with the Tea Party if Republicans assume control of the House or Senate (or both) in 2010. A slew of Tea-Party-backed candidates will soon arrive in Washington, eager to investigate Obama's birth certificate, expose his long-hidden Muslim identity and slash any number of popular government programs. Just as Newt Gingrich's shutdown of the federal government revitalized Bill Clinton's presidency in 1995, so too could Tea Party overreach reenergize Obama, making him seem rational and moderate by comparison and motivating his base to redouble its efforts in 2012. And that doesn't even factor in the Tea Party's influence on the 2012 Republican presidential primaries. Dean led to Obama. The Tea Party may lead to Republican nominee Sarah Palin. We'll see who screams last.

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Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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