Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The Meaning of Dean
I have some thoughts on Gregg Easterbrook's Super Bowl analysis and a Times story yesterday about how everything is increasingly more expensive in New York than elsewhere to share, but let me try to respond to the recent request that AIS pronounce upon Howard Dean's near-certain ascension to the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee.

First of all, if you haven't yet seen it, check out Ryan Lizza's account and analysis of what happened in the DNC chair race, and how the Democratic Powers That Be tried, with their typical level of success, to stop Dean, in the New Republic. Their ineptitude in trying to derail the Doctor is perhaps the best argument I've yet seen that the party desperately needs new, outside-the-Beltway leadership.

So much for how we got here. Now, I'm no member of the Dean cult; he won my lasting appreciation in early 2003 when he seemed to be the only Democratic presidential aspirant willing to call bullshit on the Bush administration, and his oft-repeated (though now forgotten) linkage on the campaign trail between fiscal responsibility and social progressivism resonated strongly with me. But I thought he had a certain politically self-destructive streak--a suspicion sadly proven true--and what he mostly was, at bottom, was a vessel for outraged grass-roots Democrats to vent through and, to some extent, commune with. I came to support Wes Clark, who proved himself (to me at least) much more than a resume with some genuinely thoughtful and progressive policy positions, and foreign policy credibility no one else in the campaign could touch, for the nomination; when Clark dropped out of the race, I hoped Edwards would pull it out. Of course, by then Dean was done too. Similarly, I found him a palatable enough choice for DNC chair, but I really wanted the lower-profile Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democrat Network, to get the gig. He seemed to have most of Dean's reform-related positives, but none of his baggage (see below).

The irony of his new job is that while Dean's vast internet fan club was probably decisive in his win (and arguably represents the biggest benefit of that victory, but again, see below), the job of DNC chair isn't particularly conducive to a cult of personality. It's technician's work, a managerial/coordinating, behind-the-scenes role. As pointed out somewhere during the race, we don't know whether RNC head Ken Mehlman is a rabid supply-sider, a Kulturkampfer, or a libertarian fiscal conservative. And it doesn't really matter; what matters is that the guy evidently has credibility with all those groups and has mastered the machinery of his party.

Can Dean do the same? He starts with some rather large negatives in the eyes of the party's traditional power base, including of course those feckless establishment Democrats who tried to keep him from the chairmanship in the first place. To his credit, reports are that he's trying to reach out to them. In the end, I doubt that big-money donors like Leo Hindery, the short-lived rival for the chairmanship Lizza describes in his piece, will really walk away from the party.

And even if they do, I actually expect Dean's election to be greeted with a smaller but still significant echo of the individual donor boom that fueled his run for the nomination last year. Daily Kos has already put out the call to send the DNC some cash to show that "we've got Dean's back", and even John Kerry has announced that he'll be giving $1,000,000 to the party (really, it's our money--part of the $15 million Kerry failed to expend in the last weeks of the 2004 campaign--but we can't get it back, and frankly I'd rather him spend it this way than stick in the bank for his 2008 run) on the occasion of Dean's ascension--though his e-mail message fails to mention his former rival by name.

I hope it works, and (full disclosure) I'll probably kick in a couple bucks myself. Getting official Democratic Party e-mail from Dean probably won't elicit the same nauseated response I've generally had to missives from Terry McAuliffe, and I suspect I'm not close to the only one who feels this way. In the end, that's probably the biggest positive about Dean's win: it sends a message to grass-roots, reform-oriented Democrats that their input is welcome and their contributions, monetary and otherwise, are valued. It probably blunts the disgust that many of us have felt with the party since last November. Perhaps it's ironic that James Carville has been one of the most outspoken Democrats in his dismay at Dean's victory and the open, "election-like" process that led to it--because Carville's own Democracy Corps recently found that "warm feelings" toward the party among Democrats themselves were down from 86 percent late last year to 74 percent now. At least among the party's new core of citizen-activists, that's likely to rise with Dean's triumph.

The question is whether his prominence will hurt the Democrats' image with everybody else. The Republican reaction, predictably, has been to dredge up and present in the worst possible light every dumb thing Dean said during the campaign, and then rely on the actively (Fox) or passively (every other corporate controlled outlet) supportive media to use these to further the meta-argument that the Democrats are "out of touch" and "just don't get it." Sadly, some who are ostensibly on our side seem to agree: check out this post from the Moose. (Interestingly, the other DLC-sponsored blog, New Donkey, has a much more sympathetic take on Dean's win and the road ahead; it's like they haven't quite made up their minds as an organization).

This baggage is real and progressives shouldn't shrug it. In the end, though, Dean should be able to get out of his own way; in addition to his popular support, surely unprecedented among major-party chairs, he secured the job by promising to strengthen state and local Democratic organizations and to fight the Republicans everywhere. And a final thought: perhaps the most common complaint about the Democrats is that nobody knows quite what they stand for. Say what you will about Howard Dean, but you generally know what he thinks. Democrats have long argued, and opinion polls tend to agree, that the public is with them on "the issues"; their failures have been in the realm of clarity and communication. If Dean can effectively address these, his chairmanship is likely to be successful.

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