The Democratic Wingman of the Democratic Party

Howard Dean was once the revolutionary progressive from Vermont. Now, his own PAC is supporting Bernie Sanders despite Dean’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton. For Dean and Sanders, it’s complicated.

Phil McCarten / Reuters

It would be difficult to find a more dynamic and well-rounded Democratic political creature than Howard Dean. One year after the infamous Dean Scream, the beloved longtime Vermonter and former medical doctor stepped up as chair of the Democratic Party, a position he would hold from 2005 to 2009. In 2005, Dean also founded Democracy for America, a progressive PAC and advocacy group that is thriving in the 2016 cycle. This is all in addition to his many years in the Vermont legislature, his six consecutive terms as governor of the Green Mountain State, and his service as head of the National Governors Association.

And now that America is on the precipice of what will inevitably be one of the most polarized and unpredictable general elections in recent history, Dean has become a sought-after political pundit, appearing frequently on cable news and quoted often in print media. In the present political climate, Dean has a unique perspective on his fellow Vermonter, Bernie Sanders; on Hillary Clinton, whom Dean has endorsed; and on the shape of the Democratic electorate itself. In fact, if there were an emperor of progressive Democrats, Dean would be the man—except of course his fellow Vermonter, Sanders, is now that man. Unsurprisingly, Dean’s feelings about Sanders are… complicated.

The two have certainly clashed over the years—dating back to the early 1990s, when Sanders was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and one of the founders of the Progressive Coalition, now the Progressive Party. As an unusually viable third party, Vermont’s Progressives caused then-Governor Dean more than a few headaches over dozens of policies, like free trade, environmental regulations, and party registration. And then there’s health care. In November 1993, Dean slammed then-Representative Sanders for his health-care proposal. According to The Vermont Times, Sanders “marched into the Statehouse to unveil his own study of how a Canadian-style single-payer health system would save Vermont $270 million. Sanders’ Statehouse appearance was a violation of the accepted and unspoken protocol that dictates that members of the Washington delegation stay the hell out of Montpelier’s business.” After the Statehouse move, Dean went all in and compared Sanders to Ronald Reagan—perhaps the only person ever to do so. Dean said Sanders—just like the former Republican president—was building expectations for something that was “not going to happen.” This year, during the battle for Iowa, Dean again bashed Sanders’s health-care plan: “Would his plan result in the kind of chaos that in fact would undo people’s health care? That is something to be concerned about.”

All of this confirms the sentiments several Democratic insiders expressed to me: Dean and Sanders are not pals.


“I’m a little worried about the things he’s saying now towards the end here,” Dean told me in a recent interview. “But he’s been an incredibly helpful influence on the campaign, because he’s really forced the more mainstream politicians to confront what the real problems are.” The internal rifts in the Democratic Party have always been substantial of course, but the 2016 race has brought those schisms sharply to the fore. Americans have become more frustrated with government, partisanship, and mainstream candidates—a scenario that on the left has paved the way for an idealistic, anti-establishment, socialist-Democrat like Sanders to emerge. “There’s an enormous feeling among Americans that the system is rigged against them,” said Dean. “I think that was one of the biggest issues before [Sanders] even got in the race, but he’s explicated it in a way that nobody else would have.”

Still, changing the narrative of the Democratic conversation is one thing, but there are deeper issues of Democratic solidarity in Sanders’s hands at the moment—a moment that, as far as Dean is concerned, Sanders cannot retreat from if Donald Trump is to be defeated in November. “Of course Democrats can unite again,” Dean said. But will they? “A lot of it depends on what Bernie wants to do. He can’t really go back to just being the gadfly … With a campaign like the one he’s run, he’s going to have a lot more reach to him. And if he does go back to being a gadfly, his status will drop precipitously because he won’t be viewed a serious player.”

Sanders’s surprising rise to national prominence has left Dean floating in the center of an interesting riptide of Democratic currents. As a proud endorser of Clinton, he has accrued no small amount of flack from his fellow liberal Vermonters, some of whom now view him as their state’s very own turncoat. “It’s unfortunate that [Dean] and some others are so wedded to establishment politics,” explained David Zuckerman, a Progressive state senator who has served in the Vermont House and Senate for 18 years. “They’re unable to see the tide of the times and how Bernie is actually bringing way more people into the fold.” Zuckerman said that Sanders’s socioeconomic policies could reach middle-of-the-road working-class voters and still energize the left. “What surprises me about someone like Howard Dean, and the other Vermont superdelegates,” said Zuckerman, “is that they’re the ones who should be most aware of Bernie’s ability to win the general election by getting those voters to the polls.”

Still, it’s understandable that this calculus is not so evident to Democrats. For 40 years in Vermont politics, Sanders was a leftist independent who ran against Democrats for public office. Last fall, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews could not persuade Howard Dean to acknowledge that Sanders is now a Democrat, even though he has declared himself one and is seeking the Democratic nomination. (Once, in 1996, Dean even bucked Democrats’ support of Sanders’s Independent congressional run to endorse the Republican nominee instead.) Of course, Dean’s support of Clinton is in line with most prominent Vermont Democrats, including current Governor Peter Shumlin, Senator Patrick Leahy, and former Governor Madeleine Kunin. “Cheer for Bernie, vote for Hillary,” Kunin remarked during a speech in Burlington last summer. It was 11 months ago, but the statement sums up what many conflicted, pragmatic Vermont Democrats currently feel about the presidential race.

Adding to the Sanders drama around Dean is that Dean’s own political organization, Democracy for America—whose mission is to “empower the progressive grassroots to take our democracy back from corporations and the wealthy few and aggressively combat growing income inequality”—has been an outspoken ally of the Sanders campaign. “What we did is we asked our members if and who we should endorse in the presidential primary,” said Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of DFA. Plus, the group “specifically set the threshold for endorsement high, at two-thirds majority.” Last December, Sanders met that threshold: 270,000 DFA members voted to endorse Sanders; he won 88 percent of the vote. “Barack Obama didn’t even win 88 percent,” said Chamberlain. In fact, the Democracy for America threshold is so high that, “Nobody has ever earned a presidential endorsement from DFA before.”

What’s more, Democracy for America and their Sanders-centric members have been extremely active in the 2016 primary season. In addition to email campaigns, old-fashioned door knocking, and contributing money directly to the Sanders campaign—DFA volunteers have participated in more than 90,000 phone-banking shifts, resulting in more than 80 million voter contacts, according to Chamberlain. That’s almost on par with the total number of calls that were made in all of 2012 by President Obama’s campaign.

Dean, however, sees the Sanders momentum as something much more nuanced than who should or who shouldn’t be president. Dean views the Sanders campaign as the basis for a larger structural change—just not a change Sanders himself will necessarily lead. “Bernie is not a creature of movements,” Dean said. “He’s an iconoclast.” Movements, Dean noted, take more than just passion. “He’s a very interesting guy, and what I’ve said … is, if he wants to have a movement, he’s going to have to hire some people to do it, because it’s not going to be him that does it. He can be the spokesperson, and he can motivate, and he can set the issues. But he can’t do the nitty-gritty work of fundamental change.” That’s tough talk. After all, candidate Sanders is explicitly creating a movement and agitating for fundamental—even revolutionary—change.


Dean—the ultimate party-organization man—may be more suspect of revolutions these days than he was 12 years ago during his own dynamic push for the presidency. It’s certainly easy to draw parallels between Dean’s 2004 campaign and Sanders’s run this year. Dean pioneered numerous elements of modern Democratic presidential campaigning: He used small-donor fundraising, grassroots organizing, a motivated corps of young people, and the latest technology—all pillars of Sanders’s current success. So it’s tempting to see Dean’s obvious discomfort with Sanders’s candidacy as cynicism born from experience or even just professional jealousy. But for Dean, it’s much simpler: He and Sanders were never preaching to the same choir. “Bernie’s … ideological place on the spectrum is different than mine,” said Dean.

Dean and Sanders each positioned themselves to the left of the Democratic mainstream—but the mainstream itself has shifted further left in the years between the two campaigns. “As I look back on it, the way I was running against the Democratic Party was because they were behaving like Republicans,” Dean explained. “Bernie’s big picture is fundamentally about the economic system, which I believe he’s mostly right about—not because he’s always been right, but because the economic system’s gotten worse and worse in terms of it’s fairness in the last 15 to 20 years.”

And even though many establishment Democrats have lost sleep over the divide that is gripping the Democratic coalition, Dean does not think there is cause for concern. “It’ll go away by itself,” Dean said. No one knows better than Dean how quickly a movement can evaporate, but Dean does think Sanders needs to play a big role in bringing out his voters for Clinton—preferably sooner rather than later. Going forward, a lot will depend on how Sanders reacts to an official Clinton nomination. “Nobody wants Donald Trump to be president,” Dean said. “They don’t want right-wing people in the Supreme Court. Hillary has to be gracious, and Bernie even a little more gracious. And it’s not in his nature.”

Dean though is optimistic about Sanders’s Millennial voters moving over to Clinton. Dean sees Millennials (he calls them “globals”) as about 80 percent of Sanders’s followers. “The first globals will cheerfully switch to Hillary for the most part,” Dean said. “They’re not confrontational people; they’re very pragmatic.” The remaining 20 percent of Sanders’s supporters, however, Dean views as unlikely to be converted to team Clinton. Those are older Sanders voters, who have never been Democrats and don’t seem to like Democrats. “They’re sort of sourpusses anyway,” he said. “And they probably won’t switch over, which is fine. We can win with 80 percent of Bernie’s vote.” And yet, his optimism carries a caveat: Sanders will still have to encourage his voters to go for Clinton.

In a statement issued by the campaign, Sanders in fact promised, if not to overtly support Clinton, than at least to ensure a Trump loss: “I will do everything in my power to make sure that no Republican gets into the White House this election.” Dean said he has faith that Sanders will stay true to his word. “What he said, and I actually think he’s telling the truth, is that he’s going to do everything he can to make sure there’s not a right-wing president,” Dean said. “He doesn’t have to bless Hillary’s positions, or pretend he’s something he’s not. He’s never going to do that; he never has. But he does have to be a little tolerant of the fact that there’s some difference.” Tolerance isn’t a word most people would associate with Sanders when it comes to the establishment candidate. And Dean has called on Sanders to “tone down the rhetoric,” which he called “bitter” and said could “weaken progressives.” As Dean told me, when it comes to November, “What Bernie does makes a big difference.”

So what if the unthinkable happens and Trump becomes the victor this fall? “Who the hell knows? Maybe Vermont should just secede. Hell, we’re more Canadian than most of the other states anyway.”