There’s been a lot of analysis about why Democrats lost the Massachusetts Senate race, because it was so obvious. Failing to accomplish what you campaigned on depresses your base, emboldens the enemy and convinces independents that you’re a loser. The lesson is not that Democrats went “too far” – but that they didn’t go far enough. If I had faith in President Obama and the Democratic Party, I would be hopeful that they learned that lesson. But only one person seems to get it – former DNC Chair Howard Dean – who was unceremoniously kicked to the curb last January. It was Dean who gave Democrats a backbone in the run-up to the Iraq War. It was Howard Dean’s “Fifty State Strategy” (as opposed to Rahm Emanuel’s recruitment of Blue Dogs) that won Congress in 2006. And it was Dean’s playbook that Barack Obama used to beat Hillary Clinton in an historic campaign. Beltway Democrats resent Dean, because he cares more about helping progressives win than stroking their ego. And – what’s most unforgivable – he’s been proven right.
Every two years after an election, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call publishes a large, beautiful color map of the United States featuring the results of House and Senate races. Dark blue stands for “Democratic take-over,” and dark red stands for “Republican take-over.” I first saw the map in 1996 on my college roommate’s wall, and resolved to buy it after an election where the Democrats win big. What’s really pathetic is that I had to wait ten years. Today, I’m proud to have the maps from 2006 and 2008 on my wall.
It’s not a co-incidence that both of these elections happened when Howard Dean chaired the Democratic National Committee (DNC.) Dean had electrified the grassroots with his 2004 presidential campaign, because he said it was time for Democrats to be tough. His campaign was about taking on Republicans in every part of the country, but it was also about empowering the Party’s grassroots. Supporters were told to take ownership of the campaign, and small online donations allowed him to stay competitive with corporate-funded candidates. In many ways, Howard Dean was the first “netroots” candidate.
Dean took the helm at the DNC, and set out to do the work to win in 2006. He instituted reforms in the Party that devolved power from the well-heeled donors to the grassroots activists. These “heavy hitters” were not real Democrats – most are corporate types who give money to both parties, as opposed to small donors who actually believe in the Party. Dean proved that small online donations can compete with the “big boys,” which did not endear him to the old guard. But activists could finally feel good giving their fifty bucks to the DNC.
He also implemented a “Fifty State Strategy” – investing Democratic resources in places where the Party hadn’t existed for years. It may not help flip districts in one cycle, but it laid the groundwork for Democrats to seriously contest races in the future. It also helped Democrats seize opportunities when the winds favored them. Momentum favored Democrats in 1998 (due to disgust at the Clinton impeachment), but they failed to re-take Congress because they were not competing in enough districts. That was not a problem, however, in 2006.
Compare this strategy with the “old-school” tactics that Rahm Emanuel employed at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC.) Rahm focused on a small number of districts, recruited conservative Blue Dog Democrats and told them to run against their own party to co-opt the Republican base. At worst, these candidates lost. At best, they won – but would then go to Washington with an anti-progressive mandate.
Howard Dean is the reason Democrats won in 2006 – and got nothing but grief for doing so. The media started pushing a lie right after the election that Democrats won because they had run “conservative” candidates. James Carville went on CNN to throw a tantrum about how Dean should be kicked out of the DNC, and that Harold Ford – the only serious Democratic Senate contender that year to lose, and an anti-progressive DLCer to boot – should replace him.
Dean’s transformation of politics also made it possible for Barack Obama to win the White House. Hillary Clinton was the establishment choice (and in party primaries, the establishment always wins), who raised money the old-fashioned way – through big donors. But Obama adopted the Howard Dean playbook of a grassroots campaign with a compelling message, and fundraising from small online donors. As the primaries dragged on, Obama outpaced Hillary because his donors – unlike hers – hadn’t maxed out and kept giving.
One would think that such a track record would have kept Howard Dean at the DNC for another four years. Instead, President-elect Obama quickly replaced him with Virginia Governor Tim Kaine – and didn’t even invite Dean to the announcement ceremony. As far as anyone can tell, Kaine has abandoned Dean’s “Fifty State Strategy” – bringing the DNC back to the old days of raising gobs of cash, dissing the grassroots and not investing in resources that lead to long-term viability.
The result? Democrats lost the governorship in Virginia (Kaine’s home state), couldn’t save Jon Corzine in New Jersey and even blew Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts. We can’t blame Tim Kaine for all of this, but it’s telling that just after the DNC stopped pursuing what Howard Dean had done they started losing elections. What’s galling is that Obama would not have been President without the groundwork Dean laid. What’s infuriating is that Obama was supposed to be about “change we can believe in.”
Howard Dean has returned to Democracy for America – where he’s provided instrumental leadership on the health care debate. Unlike Obama’s Organizing for America, which refused to target conservative Democrats who have given us nothing but trouble, DFA has aired TV ads in Nebraska that targeted Ben Nelson on the public option. When Democrats caved to Lieberman’s extortion (because Obama sent Rahm Emanuel to Capitol Hill, urging the Senate Democrats to do so), Dean accurately read the public’s pulse and said, “kill the bill.”
For standing on principle, Dean got nothing but grief. He was called “unstable” by White House aides. The “screaming” Howard Dean meme was again repeated in the media. He had committed the unforgivable crime of being right, and they resented it deeply. And in a few weeks, Dean’s prophecy would be proven right again by voters in Massachusetts.
Now, the Democrats have managed to fumble Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat – losing to a right-wing Republican who once posed nude for Cosmopolitan. Evidence shows that Martha Coakley’s numbers went down after the Senate passed the health care bill. Shouldn’t the Party leaders listen to Howard Dean? At least, they owe him an apology.
Paul Hogarth is the Managing Editor of Beyond Chron, San Francisco’s Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published.