Sunday, April 08, 2007

"No place all red on Dean's map"

Denver Post:
St. Davids, Pa. - Democratic chairman Howard Dean was nearing the end of his visit to a Christian college here when, finally, he provoked a response from his evangelical audience.

It wasn't by offering, though he did, to find common ground with religious conservatives on matters such as abortion, AIDS and welfare. What warmed the crowd at Eastern University was the party chairman's blunt warning to the new Democratic majority in Washington.
"You don't get a free pass," Dean said.

"Our object was not to get you into power because we are Democrats - our object was to get you into power so you actually do something," he said. "And if you don't, we are not going to stand up and keep you.

"We want change. It wasn't about the Democratic Party. It was about the country."

And at that glimpse of the authentic Howard Dean - the outlaw Howard Dean - the Baptist students started to cheer.

The chairmanship of a national political party is the ultimate insider's job. Chairmen are generally male and white, and move comfortably amid the ranks of Washington's lawyers, lobbyists and political consultants, from which they are often drawn.

The duties are those of a political mechanic: to raise money, mediate disputes, stage a national convention and otherwise tune the party machinery. It's the chairman's job to spin the media (grossly inflating the party's prospects in the next election) and serve as cheerleader.

All of which makes Dean an unlikely man to chair the Democratic National Committee. And, to some extent, it explains why the Democrats chose Denver for the 2008 convention. Colorado is an unconventional choice. But then, Dean is an unconventional leader.

"Denver is a little risky"

The Democratic chairman will be in Denver on Thursday - in part to celebrate its selection, and in part to quell an increasingly nasty protest by unions over Colorado's business and political climate, which, they say, is anti-labor.

"Denver is a little risky," Dean admits. "But if you don't take risks, you don't win."

The Democratic chairman is an outsider. In much of official Washington, he is scorned as a loner, or viewed at best with wary regard. He commutes from Vermont and lives in a hotel; his office at party headquarters has few homey touches.

Dean's campaign for the presidency in 2004 was known for all the things the Beltway brokers disdain: spontaneity, passion, amateurishness, genius and chaos. It soared like a bottle rocket, burned through $40 million and fizzled in Iowa, the first caucus state. He is a physician, with a doctor's cockiness that rubs some as arrogance.

During last year's election, Dean clashed with Democratic congressional leaders - "the inside Washington folks," he calls them - over allocation of party resources. They wanted money to buy television commercials in tight races; he insisted that funds be saved for grassroots organizing.

According to "The Thumpin'," an upcoming book by Naftali Bendavid on the 2006 contest, the attack on Dean was instigated by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, and executed by a former Clinton White House aide, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the Democrat from Chicago who led the congressional campaign committee.

"They're not phone banking, they're not doing anything. ... They've burned cash," Emanuel griped to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader, the book recounts. "They couldn't find their ass with both hands tied behind their back."

When the campaign was over, two Clinton intimates - consultant James Carville and pollster Stan Greenberg - went public with more complaints, with Carville declaring that Dean should be fired.

"Howard Dean's leadership is Rumsfeld-ian in its incompetence," Carville said.

Yet Dean won the skirmish because he had broad support among the party rank and file, and an army of vocal defenders in the Internet-based community of liberal activists known as the "netroots." The coup died aborning when the Democratic state chairs passed a resolution backing the chairman. Things are quiet now, but Democratic insiders wonder if the dispute will flare again in 2008.

Power to the people

Bendavid says Dean, at times, was so wedded to his own long-term plans that he seemed "curiously indifferent" to the possibility that 2006 was emerging as a pivotal election. Greenberg says Dean's slow response "left seats on the table."

Dean is on a self-anointed mission: to purify the Democratic Party by taking power from the governing class and returning it to the people.

"This guy is not some crazy guy," said Harvard University professor Elaine Kamarck, an experienced Democratic theorist who studied the Emanuel-Dean dispute and the 2006 results - and came down on the side of the chairman. "He is doing something quite real, quite necessary and quite valuable."

Kamarck attributes Dean's run-in with the "Clintonistas" to the "insider antipathy" of a nervous establishment, which looks with trepidation at the Internet's impact on politics.

"The persistence of the debate is no accident," Kamarck writes, in a paper summarizing her conclusions. "After nearly half a century of paying obeisance to the god of television in political campaigns, the Internet has opened up a new front ... one that threatens the status quo and the people who make their living from television.

"The Internet allows for the return of old fashioned political organizing. The shift in political campaigns from the 'air war' to the 'ground war' shifts power from Washington and the centralized party committees and from professional consultants to the states and localities."

As Dean told the students at Eastern University: "There will always be some television involved in campaigns, but the era of the 30-second spot as an effective tool of politics is disappearing, and what is more effective is being on the Internet, where we can hear from you and not just you hear from us."

Dean sees his job as completing a historic transformation of the Democratic Party.

The New Deal party - a muscular national organization that drew its strength from urban Democratic machines, Southern baronies, labor unions, Western progressives and liberal intellectuals - was torn apart in the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras. In 1972, South Dakota's George McGovern and a young Coloradan, Gary Hart, built their presidential campaign outside the hidebound DNC. So did Jimmy Carter in 1976. The national organization deteriorated.

Moving the piggy bank

For much of the past 40 years, the DNC has served as a piggy bank, to be plundered by political consultants, who receive a percentage of the television advertising costs and had few incentives to invest in the provinces. In the South and West, many local parties withered. During the Clinton years, the Democrats made a crucial breakthrough by adding California and the other Pacific states to their traditional Northeastern and Midwestern base, but important plums such as Texas and Georgia have virtually been ceded to the GOP.

"We had existing parties in every state, but most ... were dysfunctional because they had no resources," Dean said. "Therefore they couldn't produce; therefore nobody would invest in them; therefore they couldn't produce."

The Democrats' status as a national party may have reached a nadir in 2004, when President Bush was re-elected, and they lost five open Senate seats in the South, despite discontent over events in Iraq. The Democrats targeted a minimal number of states in that year's presidential race, to give them just enough votes in the Electoral College to eke out victory. Huge swaths of the South and West were surrendered.

"This is something the Democrats have suffered from for a long time - a shrinking party concentrating on fewer and fewer voters," Dean said. "We just haven't competed. We have been afraid to. And this notion that we are going to do the math and if we miss two states we are going to lose the presidency is crazy."

As the Democrats were drifting, the Republican Party was building a formidable network around a wealthy donor base, conservative think tanks, new media outlets, opposition research, and computerized voter identification and turnout operations. Many of these assets were located within the Republican National Committee, where they could be nurtured and built upon, regardless of which party held the presidency. In 2004, for instance, the GOP's national, computerized voter turnout program was effectively coupled with a slick "micro-targeting" initiative, a relatively new way of identifying potential voters via their commercial tastes and lifestyles.

"The Republicans have had a strategic structural and organizational advantage for the last 20 years," said Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik, a veteran of the Clinton White House. "We have to catch up."

Dean reached an epiphany when meeting with angry Democratic state chairmen during the 2004 convention in Boston, said DNC executive director Tom McMahon. Dean vowed to rebuild the local parties by dispatching money and manpower from the capital. The state chairs formed the core of his support in the chairmanship race, and do so today. So was born the 50 State Strategy.

"We have to be organized and disciplined, and we have to be everywhere," Dean said.

Personal impressions

There are practical political benefits of the 50 State Strategy. The Senate, most obviously, is not apportioned by population, but by state. If Democrats forfeit the five states of the inner South - South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana - and states such as Utah, Idaho, Nebraska, Kansas and Wyoming, they will start each battle from a 20-vote deficit. Being everywhere provides room for error, and the ability to capitalize on unexpected opportunities, in struggles for the Electoral College and House of Representatives.

Under the 50 State Strategy, the DNC spends about $8 million a year employing about 200 party workers out in the states. Not every state is treated equally: the DNC spent $1.6 million in Ohio last year, $614,000 in Colorado and just $327,000 in Idaho. But even the small sum sent to Idaho allowed its state party to hire two field organizers and a communications director. When a GOP congressional seat opened up in Idaho, the Democrats had a framework in place to capitalize on. The GOP retained the seat, but only after spending $1.2 million and summoning Bush for help.

It is difficult to quantify such things, because so many factors contribute to a campaign's outcome, but Kamarck's research showed that - after removing variables such as the impact of the war in Iraq and the money spent on TV - the Democrats more than doubled the growth of the party's vote in those districts where Dean sent paid organizers.

And there is more than politics at stake, Dean said. "We put a quarter of a million dollars in Mississippi a year," Dean notes, despite any hope that the state will vote for a Democratic presidential candidate. "Why is that? There are 50,000 kids in Mississippi who are dependent on a Democratic majority in the Mississippi House, which is all that stands between (Republican Gov.) Haley Barbour and stripping those kids of their health insurance. That is why we have to be in Mississippi."

Denver's selection is a piece of the 50 State Strategy as well. In choosing the city, Dean said, the Democratic Party wants to send a signal to Western voters that it appreciates their values and wants their votes.

"I wanted to do the hard thing, and not the easy thing," Dean said. "It is easy to go someplace where everybody loves you and there are no problems. But if you want to expand the pie to get more votes, you have to go to the places where people don't know much about you, or maybe they don't love you because they have heard the wrong thing about you from the opposite party and you haven't been there to defend yourself."

Westerners have a live-and-let-live attitude, he argues, and have been put off by the social agenda of the religious right.

"I believe it is possible for the next Democratic nominee to win Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada," he said.

A Democratic Party, competing all across America, will be a unifying and cooperative force, he promised in his speech at Eastern University.

"When you present yourself at somebody's door, you can no longer be one of 'those people.' You are a human being. It is a sign of respect to ask people for their vote, even knowing that they may not vote for you."

Even "if you win by focusing on 25 states ... what about the people in those other states?" Dean said. "What is their predisposition to your leadership when you begin to lead? It is one of hostility and antagonism, and it is one of fear - because you haven't bothered to show up."

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