Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Howard Dean's Democratic Party

(January 2005)

“Give the people a choice between a Republican and a Republican and they will pick the Republican every time.”
- Harry Truman

In the aftermath of the 2004 elections, the consensus among the chattering classes was that John Kerry and his fellow Democrats fared so poorly as a result of their values - or rather their lack thereof. As though the values gap in comparison to the Republican Party was limited to their candidates’ perceived commitment to religious mores, the Democratic caucus in the Senate chose a pro-life, teetotaling Mormon in Harry Reid as their new figurehead, and sent House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi brandishing a Bible in front of the Washington press corps. These two embodiments of the party establishment decided that the best way to reverse their political decline was to deemphasize their dedication to the very principles which define the Democratic Party, and likewise endorsed Tim Roemer for the position of DNC Chairman - someone who as a Congressman from Indiana not only fought against abortion rights but also voted for the privatization of Social Security.

A lonely voice called foul, that of former Vermont governor Howard Dean, “That word—'values'—has lately become a codeword for appeasement of the right-wing fringe. But when political calculations make us soften our opposition to bigotry, or sign on to policies that add to the burden of ordinary Americans, we have abandoned our true values.”

When the post of chairman of the Democratic National Committee opened up, Dr. Dean saw a golden opportunity to personally do what he based his entire presidential campaign on: “taking back” the party to its progressive roots and transforming it into an effectual political organization. In his speech to the executive committee in January of 2003, Dean laid out his plan, “I want a party that stands unashamedly for equal rights for all Americans” and “I want a party that stands unashamedly for health care for every single American”, he declared, “I want a party that stands unashamedly for balanced budgets and taking care of poor kids and voting together and healing the divides instead of expressing the divides and exploiting them the way the Republican Party has so shamelessly done since 1968.” Howard Dean offered voters a choice, not an echo.

Predictably, the media consultants and strategists who fill up the highest ranks of the Democratic Party wet their pants with fear. In an eerily parallel repetition of the spasms that occurred when Dean became the frontrunner during the 2003-2004 primary races, his Lilliputian rivals teamed up to try to bring down what seemed once again to be a certain victory. The Kerry loyalists tried to entice Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to enter the race, and the Clinton loyalists tried to inject their man Wesley Clark , but both declined due to presidential aspirations in 2008. Ex-Representative Martin Frost, gerrymandered out of his House district, ran to remake the Democrats as the national security party. And the Congressional leaders did their best to pump life into Roemer’s hopeless effort, to no avail. However, unlike Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, his run for DNC chairman ended not in an ignominious scream but an outright victory.

So what does this mean? Has the Democratic Party given up on its populist roots and become the spokesperson for what New York Times columnist David Brooks labels the “the urban and university-town elite”? Has it given up all hope of ever again being a party that governs and morphed into a permanent protest organization? I would say that in choosing Dean as their new chairman, Democrats have shown that they finally realize that no one likes a politician who tries to be something that they are not; they have once and for all come out of the closet, so to speak. And it’s about time.

If the standard complaint about the Democratic Party’s deficiency in values is referring to individual Democrats’ personal piety, it can be brushed off as a superficial ad hominem attack. But the values issue actually has much truth if it is referring to the party’s running without dedication to any guiding principles, for ever since the Democratic Party became the party of Bill Clinton, it has essentially been running for the sole sake of winning. As a “New Democrat” who could triangulate between the ideologues on the right and the left, Clinton chose as his DNC chairs philosophical soul-mates like Ron Brown and Roy Romer, and the DNC bobbed along fecklessly in tandem with Clinton’s presidency, trying ever-so-earnestly to appeal to unaffiliated swing voters at the expense of the party’s base. From 1993 onward the party leadership has done its best to avoid taking a definitive stand on issues like war and peace, abortion and marriage – those issues which actually drive private citizens to engage in activism; in recent years, chairman Terry McAuliffe squandered the opportunity of having an unelected bully pulpit to bring attention to Democrats’ supporting drought relief for Great Plains farmers and questioning the legitimacy of petitions for Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign.

The current political makeup of this country testifies that centrism is an excellent platform for a single candidate to run for election, but a dreadful platform to define a political party; though Clinton was elected and re-elected four years later, under his chairmen’s reign, Democrats lost their majority of seats in both houses of Congress and their grip on statehouses nationwide. And the GOP’s current ascendancy would not be possible if it were not for Newt Gingrich’s rigidly ideological tenure as Speaker of the House; credit for the Republican sweep in the 1994 midterm elections is largely given to his reform-minded and self-righteous Contract with America, which spelled out a platform of fundamental values and an agenda for all of his colleagues to run on.

Now the Howard Dean/Newt Gingrich analogy is too tempting to resist. Not only have they both shaped their rhetoric with the language of reform, but they actually shared a number of the same proposals, from balancing budgets to strengthening ethics laws; of course, the only reason Dean can still run on part of Gingrich’s platform is that with more than a decade after the latter’s revolution, the federal budget is running up deficits and Congress’ ethical standards are in shambles.

The most widespread grievances against both of their respective modi operandi were that both men were so uncompromising that they could not work across party lines, and that their personalities were so anger-fueled that they turned off swing voters and members of the opposite party. But prickliness was no longer a problem for Gingrich once he shed his status as leader of the opposition party, for he did not have to make deals with Democrats in order to advance his agenda. And ideological purity was an asset if anything, for his electoral strategy was not to aim for moderates but to give conservatives and apolitical types receptive to a conservative message a reason to come out and vote. Howard Dean’s famously outspoken nature was one of the main reasons why people new to the world of politics came to work for his campaign in the first place; bipartisanship would have been an essential for the success of a Dean presidency, but a Dean chairmanship? By the nature of the job as head of the Democratic Party, Howard Dean now has no one to answer to but registered Democrats.

After all, the whole reason for political parties to exist in the first place is to organize likeminded activists in a particular movement. The Communist Party was made to further the march of Communism, the Prohibition Party was formed to enact Prohibition, and the Republican Party now serves to advance the aims of the conservative movement. Howard Dean is making the Democratic Party the electoral vehicle of the Progressive movement, as he is channeling the dedication and purpose from the current national campaigns for a fair economy, a stable environment, an end to the war in Iraq, reproductive rights, gay rights, under the Democratic tent.

Another one of the Democratic Party’s weaknesses has been its relative lack of a localized, bottom-up, grassroots organization in comparison to the GOP, which has such a thriving national machine that it is able to field candidates for almost every major public office. The spin-off organization from Dean for America, Democracy for America, has been successfully recruiting socially progressive, fiscally responsible candidates from school boards, county sheriff’s offices and public land commissions up to the current governor of Montana and junior senator from Colorado. The vast majority of these candidates were inspired to run for their own positions in government after making phone calls and stuffing envelopes for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign.

First-year student Raj Borsellino explained to me that the new chairman of the DNC was uniquely inspirational, enough so to make him decide to defer matriculation to Amherst College so that he could spend a year working on his ground campaign for the Iowa caucuses. “When Howard Dean was still in the race for president, I had faith in the system. I had faith that my participation was actually going towards something meaningful.” Now he and countless other “Deaniacs”, many of whom had no prior involvement in Democratic politics, are transporting their faith in one man to faith in the Democratic Party.

If Democrats are ever again to be the dominant party in the United States, we have to capitalize on their appeal among young people, for if college students, working teenagers and twenty-somethings voted in the same proportion as Social Security beneficiaries, then the power structure of this country would be fundamentally less conservative than it is now. During the short-lived Dean for America campaign, the heft of the youth vote was seen at levels unseen since the days of Gene McCarthy and George McGovern, as a remarkable one quarter of all financial contributors were under 30 years old, and even activists who were years away from voting age or even earning their drivers’ licenses raised thousands of dollars worth of campaign funds on the Internet. By choosing Howard Dean as their new boss, the DNC is taking a long-term step in the right direction.

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