Howard Dean and the Democrats

Andrew E. Busch

February 1, 2005

Democrats, about to choose a new national chairman for their party, are on the verge of making a decision that is both fraught with potential consequences and interesting for the insight it offers on the current state of the party.

The front runner—indeed, increasingly the prohibitive favorite—is former Vermont Governor and Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean.

Given Dean’s rapid descent after the Iowa caucuses one year ago, it is easy to forget that he spent the last half of 2003 as the man who seemed most likely to receive the Democratic presidential nomination. He combined far left economics (including total repeal of the Bush tax cuts and creation of a national health plan), far left foreign policy (including consistent and vehement opposition to the toppling of Saddam), and a pugnacious personality that seemed never at a loss for something provocative to say. In the months leading up to the Democratic primaries, he topped the Democratic field in fundraising and had reputedly built (or tapped into) a grassroots movement of the left, centered around the Internet.

Once Dean began to appear unelectable to many Democrats, John Kerry snuck past him in Iowa and rode the subsequent momentum all the way to the nomination, with an assist from Dean’s famous caucus-night "scream." Now, miraculously, Dean is back, and is close to achieving a lock on the DNC chairmanship.

Despite snickers from the right, there is a certain logic in the Dean candidacy. For one thing, the existing model of the chairmanship—the Terry McAuliffe model—is obviously bankrupt. McAuliffe, whose nickname "moneybags" was not won for nothing, raked in the dough but presided over the steady atrophy of Democratic strength nationally. By looking to a different style of leadership, Democrats are acknowledging that what they have been doing has not worked.

Dean also has the potential—or at least his supporters argue he does—to mobilize and organize activists via the Internet methods he touted in 2003-04. Given his fundraising record, supporters can hope he might raise as much money as McAuliffe, though in smaller denominations, while attending much better to the business of party building.

And Dean promises to offer a consistent message, unlike the uninspiring muddle that has substituted for a message for Democrats in 2002 and 2004.

The potential downside for Democrats of a Dean chairmanship is, however, bigger than the potential upside.

His message, while consistent, is likely to be far enough to the left to drive away key contributors, moderate voters, and perhaps even some Democratic office-holders. Prepare for at least a small wave of party-switchers if he wins and behaves true to form.

Furthermore, he may often find himself at cross-purposes with congressional Democrats, who are less interested in long-term party building on an ideological model than in surviving the next election. Their recent muddle has not been accidental, but rather the calculated response of a party that has found itself put by George W. Bush in a difficult spot. It may have been uninspiring, but it may also have been the best they could do. John Kerry’s incoherence on Iraq was less a blunder than a strategic necessity.

And then there is personality. Dean’s message may be deliberately framed in a manner that will lead him into conflict with some Democratic officeholders, but he may also step into some conflicts inadvertently. It cannot be forgotten that his presidential lead collapsed in no small part because he immolated himself with one ill-advised snippet after another. Has he grown out of this habit? Democrats will have to hope that he has.

Nor is it clear that his vaunted fundraising and organizational skills are all they are cracked up to be. His presidential fundraising advantage was impressive in a nominating contest featuring a half-dozen serious contenders, but it is not clear that he could have expanded much beyond his base had it been even a two-man race. Even more must one question the efficacy of his primary organization, which was much-vaunted but collapsed under pressure, first in Iowa and then everywhere else. More broadly, one might have thought that the 2004 election would lay to rest the dreams of Democrats that their key to general election victory was in mobilizing new voters on the left. They moved heaven and earth to produce new voters, succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, and lost anyway.

This point is part of a broader illustration: what Dean’s ascent (or re-ascent) says about the current status of the Democratic Party. While some individual Democrats have taken the hints offered by the 2004 (and 2002) election, the party as a whole has either not come to grips with its recent defeats or has chosen to interpret those defeats as the result of insufficiently clear liberalism. The replacement of Clintonites like McAuliffe with Dean, following the 2002 replacement of Richard Gephardt with Nancy Pelosi, would signal that Democrats as a group have made a conscious decision to shift back hard in the direction of McGovernism. One might even declare the era of Clintonism within the Democratic Party to be over or at least suspended until further notice. Dean’s rise—whether he ultimately wins the DNC vote or not—may also be evidence of the depletion of talent on the Democratic side.

Whether Dean turns out well or ill for Democrats, it is worth noting that few party chairmen in either party have ever made much of a lasting mark. Ron Brown for Democrats and Meade Alcorn and Bill Brock for Republicans made really notable contributions to their parties; Fred Harris may have done lasting damage to Democrats when he stacked the McGovern-Fraser commission with glassy-eyed reformers in 1969. Perhaps the best Democrats can hope for is that Dean will end up in the long list of others, little noted nor long remembered. It is fair to say, though, that Dean himself has no intention of ending up on that list.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.