Two questions swirled around the Democrats as their national committee assembled yesterday to select a new party chairman: Can Howard Dean cure what ails the party, or is Howard Dean symptomatic of why those ailments may be so difficult to cure?
The former Vermont governor is poised to claim the party chairmanship tomorrow. His victory represents a personal triumph one year after his presidential campaign was in ashes and symbolizes the strength of the party's revitalized grass roots in the aftermath of John F. Kerry's loss to President Bush in November.
Howard Dean, left, inherits a financially enriched Democratic National Committee from outgoing chief Terence R. McAuliffe.
(Mario Tama -- Getty Images)
But for a party grappling with the question of how it can become more competitive in the red states of the South, Midwest and Mountain West, the decision to elect as its chairman a confrontational New Englander with a liberal identity and a penchant for making controversial statements sends a message in the view of some Democrats that little has been learned from the losses in 2004.
His supporters say Dean will rebuild moribund state parties, keep the grass roots energized, raise money, and keep Bush and the GOP on the defensive. Others fear he will push the Democrats' image farther to the left and drive moderate voters into the hands of the Republicans. That is a particular concern among some grass-roots Democrats in the red states.
"I think Howard Dean would be viewed as synonymous with being upper-East Coast liberal, and that just makes the burden on southern Democrats that much more difficult," said James F. "Jim" Kyle Jr. (D), the minority leader of the Tennessee Senate. "Hopefully he will try to be chairman of the entire party and not the chairman of a niche of the party members."
That challenge awaits Dean and the rest of his party's leadership as he makes the transition from more than a decade in elective politics, in which he was often in the limelight, to chief technician of an institution in which he will be expected to get the machinery ready for the elections of 2006 and 2008 while deferring to congressional and gubernatorial leaders and eventually to the party's presidential candidates in 2008.
But as the newest face in the party's constellation of leaders, Dean symbolizes two of the major challenges Democrats have in regrouping after Bush's victory. He represents the antiwar wing of a party debating where it should stand on national security issues, and he offers a secular vision of the world at a time when Democrats worry that they have ceded the values of faith and spirituality to Republicans.
Harold Ickes, deputy chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, supports Dean's candidacy for party chairman but said Democrats must find a way to talk differently about such issues as abortion, gay rights, guns and the environment. "We're on the right side of those issues, but they have hurt us with a lot of people in too many jurisdictions," he said. "We have to learn how to talk about those without ceding our principles."
There is no question that Dean's ascendance worries the party establishment, whose members tried without success to field an alternative for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and they have offered Dean lots of advice.
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said explicitly last week that Dean should take his cues on policy from congressional leaders, and yesterday Dean met privately with Reid and Pelosi and pledged to avoid raising issues that were not part of congressional Democrats' agenda, according to a Senate aide. Dean also vowed to spend much of his time in southern and western states.
Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said, "He's got to remind himself, in terms of discipline, that he is the national chair of the party and there are other people in the party that should speak on issues as opposed to the national chair."
Another labor official put it more bluntly: "The question for all of us is, will he act as chairman of the Democratic Party or president of the Democrats, and what makes people nervous is the latter."
As the DNC begins its winter meeting here, Dean has no remaining challengers in his quest to become party chairman. He capitalized on his prominence and then outworked and outmaneuvered his opponents, concentrating on the 447 voting members of the committee and convincing them he could put the party in shape to win elections.
His success has muted some of his former critics. Two years ago, centrist Democrats were at war with Dean. Asked this week whether he worried about Dean as party chairman, Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, said: "The job of party chair is different from party nominee. The party chair needs to be an ardent partisan. You can't send a vegetarian to do a red-meat job."