mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


Why Dean should take charge

Florida Democrats’ decision to unanimously back Howard Dean as the new
chairman of the DNC (Democratic National Committee) shows two things: first,
there are still some Democrats out there — including in the supposedly
hopeless South — who have brains and guts and aren’t afraid to think for
themselves; and second, Dean now has a real shot at winning the DNC job and
launching a much-needed makeover of the Democratic Party.

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Political and media elites in Washington are at once horrified and
dismissive of Dean’s quest. They insist that Democrats would be crazy
to pick a raving liberal like Dean as their next party chairman. But
as is so often the case, this inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom
is based on dubious facts and assumptions about how ordinary
Americans relate to politics. Dean is exactly the leader Democrats
need to become relevant again.

The Florida Democratic chairman’s statement to the New York Times
reveals just how out of touch the Washington establishment is: I’m a
gun-owning pickup-truck driver and I have a bulldog named Lockjaw,
said Scott Maddox. I am a Southern chairman of a Southern state, and
I am perfectly comfortable with Howard Dean as DNC chair.

And the reason Florida Democrats like Dean?

What our party needs right now is energy, enthusiasm and a
willingness to do things differently, Maddox added. I think Howard
Dean brings all three of those things to the party.

Maddox isn’t the only prominent Southern Democrat backing Dean. On
Tuesday, the state chairman from Mississippi and the vice chairmen
from Oklahoma and Utah announced that they too were endorsing the
former Vermont governor, leading ABC News’ influential The Note to
declare that Dean is now emphatically the front-runner for the DNC
job.

A year ago, Dean was jeered off the national stage by television’s
nonstop coverage of his scream speech. And it must be admitted that
he showed some undeniable weaknesses as a presidential candidate in
2004, including a tendency to speak first and think later. But Dean is
running for party chairman now, not president. The chairman’s job is
to rally and organize the party faithful to do the unglamorous but
vital grass-roots work that will expand the Democratic base, reach out
to new and uncommitted voters, and win future elections. As Maddox
said, Dean fits that job description perfectly. He inspires
grass-roots enthusiasm and his time as governor of Vermont grants him
the necessary executive and administrative skills.

What’s more, in the wake of the Democrats’ loss to President Bush in
November, Dean’s political message, and especially the way he delivers
it, looks better and better.

Dean, after all, was right about the central issue of the 2004
election — the Iraq war. Nowadays, a majority of the American public
believes that attacking Iraq was a bad idea. Dean was saying this —
and being criticized for it — in the fall of 2003.

Dean was also right when he said Democrats should be the party not
only of urban liberals but of guys with Confederate flags in their
pickup trucks, another comment he was derided for. But in view of how
many centrist voters chose President Bush over John Kerry, even though
Kerry’s economic policies would have benefited them more, Dean’s call
to reach out to culturally conservative voters was prescient.

Above all, Dean was right that Democrats would win only if they told
voters exactly what they stood for and why. Kerry never did that,
especially on Iraq, where his reluctance to call the war (and not just
its prosecution) a mistake let the president off the hook on his most
vulnerable issue.

By contrast, Bush never shrank from saying what he believed. Like
Dean, he understood a basic fact of American politics: voters value
plain-spokenness in a politician much more than agreement on specific
issues. Bush was even clever enough to steal one of Dean’s signature
lines: You may not always agree with me, but you’ll always know where
I stand.

All of the news stories reporting Dean’s decision to seek the DNC
chairmanship repeated the standard rap against him: He’s too liberal.
But that charge doesn’t reflect reality so much as it reflects the
Washington establishment’s version of reality. Dean was labeled a
liberal by the media essentially because he opposed the Iraq war.
Never mind that he was also a deficit hawk who opposed gun control,
gay marriage and universal healthcare, or that many conservatives
later embraced his criticism of the war. In the post-Sept. 11 mood of
false patriotism, the media assumed that anyone who criticized an
apparently successful war had to be a liberal, and that was that.

This mischaracterization has led observers to miss the real source of
Dean’s appeal to a jaded electorate: He knows what he believes and
he’s not afraid to say it plainly enough for ordinary people to
understand. His vision for Democrats is not about moving the party to
the left; it’s about Democrats standing for something that resonates
with ordinary Americans — a task that current party leaders have
manifestly failed to achieve.

Dean believes the Democratic Party’s allegiance to big donors and
cautious incrementalism has alienated many of its logical voters.
Alone among prominent Democrats, he recognizes that the party has
little future if it cannot connect in an authentic way with the
extraordinary grass-roots energy that propelled his own presidential
campaign (and that later nearly got Kerry elected, despite the Kerry
campaign’s many shortcomings).

In 2004, Dean rewrote the rules of presidential campaigns by using the
Internet and local meet-ups to raise small donor money. But Dean’s
real secret was to give supporters real influence within his campaign
and thus hook them on continued political participation. The idea of
meet-ups, for example, came from the grass roots, not from campaign
headquarters.

The Bush campaign tapped into similar grass-roots energy among
conservatives and thereby expanded Republican turnout enough to gain
the president a second term. Democrats must do more of the same in the
years to come, and Dean is the leader who best understands that
imperative. Dean, after all, is a populist. And his populism is not
the brand espoused by President Bush — a millionaire who shills for
billionaires while talking like the common man. Dean’s is the real
thing. Which is why Republicans privately fear him.

Another part of the media consensus on Dean is that he only wants the
DNC job to grease his run for president in 2008. For his part, Dean
has declared he won’t run if he gets the DNC job. Of course, he could
change his mind. But it’s worth remembering that presidential
candidate Dean always said that Democrats must first reform their
party and its approach to politics if they want to win the White
House.

Dean is now traveling around the country telling his supporters that
remaking the Democratic Party is a long-term project that could take
20 years. His first hurdle comes on Feb. 12, when 447 largely unknown
party officials from around the country will vote for the next DNC
chairman. The Florida and other Southern Democrats’ decision to back
him will, of course, be enormously helpful to Dean’s prospects, but it
also figures to call forth still more anyone but Dean efforts from
the party establishment.

Everyone agrees the Democrats have to remake themselves; they just
lost to perhaps the most vulnerable incumbent in history. The DNC vote
will give the first hint of how they plan to proceed. At a time when
America has never needed an effective opposition party more, let us
pray Democrats can rise to the challenge.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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