Howard Dean, are you absolutely sure you want to be the Democratic Party's national chairman?
In recent months, I've had conversations with just about every kind of Democrat, each as certain and as passionate as the next about what the party's top priorities should be. How can Dean, or anyone, square all these disparate imperatives, one with the other? Alternatively, can he choose some and reject others without a lot of Democrats screaming -- at him?
Oh, and one more thing: As Howard Dean, left, takes the reins of the Democratic Party from Terry McAuliffe there's no shortage of people offering advice on what he must do now.
(Sharon Farmer -- AP)
The must-do list included:
(1) Defeating the Bush Social Security plan;
(2) Establishing the Democrats as strong, tough and trustworthy in fighting terrorism and pursuing a responsible foreign policy;
(3) Asserting the party's identification with moral values and religion;
(4) Holding fast to the party's commitment to abortion rights and tolerance;
(5) Crafting an economic message to bring back socially conservative but financially pressed voters;
(6) Reinvigorating the party's organization to match Karl Rove's Republican machine, state by state, precinct by precinct;
(7) Building on the work in 2004 of outside groups such as MoveOn.Org and Americans Coming Together, because the old party politics are irrelevant to the future;
(8) Standing for something even if it's unfashionable -- such as the eradication of poverty -- because voters are looking for strength and commitment, and don't like candidates who speak Focusgroupese;
(9) Understanding the views of NASCAR dads, security moms, country-western music fans, gun owners, Southerners, country people and others who regard the Democrats as the party of overeducated, arrogant, Volvo-driving elitists.
And that is just a partial catalogue.
Of course, it's possible for advocates of Priority No. 5 (having a clear economic message), to join forces with those pushing Priority No. 9 (reaching out to NASCAR dads and gun owners). But the many obvious tensions in the list speak to the very peculiar and difficult nature of the party's post-2004 debate.
Because the election was so close, almost anything any Democrat says about why President Bush won reelection can be true. It's perfectly possible to see the party as being in fine shape, that it was hard to beat a wartime incumbent, that the Democrats need only a few more percentage points to be back on top. It's equally plausible to argue that the party must be in awful shape if it couldn't defeat Bush after the job losses of his first four years and the problematic Iraq war.
It's also possible to blame the defeat on John Kerry's personal shortcomings. It's just as legitimate to argue that many of Kerry's difficulties -- his ambivalent position on the war in Iraq, his cautious campaign -- reflected a deeper defect in a party that can't quite figure out what it stands for.
It's stunning that a year after Dean's crash-and-burn exit from the presidential race he emerged as the top candidate to lead the party back to glory. His victory is the result, in part, of his shrewd understanding of the politics of the 447-member Democratic National Committee -- something his rivals for the job acknowledged by throwing in the towel in advance of yesterday's vote. But there was another reason for Dean's comeback: He appeared to be in the best position to meet most -- though not all -- of the competing demands of Democratic activists.
I'm no Deaniac. I understand why Dean makes many Democrats nervous and why some think he'll be a disaster. But I don't buy the doomsday scenario. The former Vermont governor will never be mistaken for a NASCAR dad, but he repeatedly won office in a rural state and enjoyed good relations with gun owners. "Howard quite frankly has been unencumbered by deeply held principles," Montpelier lawyer David Kelley, no fan of Dean's, told a team of Vermont reporters writing a biography of Dean in 2003. "He becomes the person he needs to be. He's very pragmatic."
He'll need to be very pragmatic. Hawkish Democrats are still alarmed at the rise of the antiwar, sometimes loose-talking Dean; Southerners and more socially conservative Democrats wonder what good a Yale graduate from Vermont can possibly do for their party.
But the very fact that Dean sought the job -- can you remember any failed presidential candidate who went on to be Democratic Party chairman? -- suggests that he understands something that few others in his party get: In the age of electronic media, at this moment of highly polarized politics, leading the opposition party's formal organization is potentially one of the most powerful positions in American politics.
Few see the potential of Dean's chairmanship better than Simon Rosenberg, who sought the job but dropped out in the face of Dean's juggernaut. Rosenberg is a perfect political hybrid: He heads up the centrist New Democrat Network and has developed a deep respect for the world of Internet politics and the way Dean used the new technology in 2004.
"People don't understand how disproportionately important the Democratic National Committee is going to be in driving politics for Democrats," Rosenberg says. "We used to have precinct captains and county chairmen: Your relationship to the party was brokered by many intermediaries. Now, there are millions of Americans who have a direct relationship with the national party which is more meaningful than their relationship with their local party." If you doubt that, compare how much money was raised for national Democrats online, and how much was delivered by the remains of the old local party organizations.
As party chairman, Rosenberg argues, Dean will have direct access to those millions of Democrats through e-mail and more control over the Democratic "brand" than any congressional leader could hope to enjoy. That prospect exhilarates some Democrats and petrifies others -- and helps explain why Dean went after the job.
But what, exactly, will he do with it? Much depends on how he and the party settle two core arguments:
The Need to Oppose vs. the Need to Offer Alternatives. Newt Gingrich may be an odd Democratic hero, but the genius of the former Speaker's take-no-prisoners politics is now the hottest talking point in Democratic politics. Gingrich relished the role of opposition leader in Bill Clinton's first term: He fought down Clinton's health care bill, making the rookie president look like a failure. He undercut Clinton's crime bill, which was supposed to be a moderate, "New Democrat" approach, by making it look like a package of liberal social programs. And he was unrelenting in attacking the ethics of Democratic leaders. Democrats eager to use ethics issues against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay are closely studying the Gingrich script.
There is no bigger target for Democrats than Bush's partial privatization plan for Social Security. Opposing Bush's approach gives something to every Democratic faction. Moderates hate the huge borrowing the proposal entails. Liberals cannot abide turning away from the idea of social insurance at the heart of the New Deal. Democrats of all stripes think Bush is exaggerating the immediacy of the problem. And from bitter experience, Democrats know that there is no political percentage in playing ball with Bush, since he has shown he will work hard to defeat any vulnerable Democrat, even those who have supported him on many issues.
Opposing Bush isn't just a liberal preoccupation now. It's a Democratic preoccupation. "Bush's extremism unifies Democrats," says Robert Borosage, a founder of the liberal Campaign for America's Future, "so the fault lines are beneath that."
But is opposition a better way to go than offering alternatives? That question will be easier to resolve if it is recognized as a classic false choice. As Borosage notes, the differences among Democrats "aren't nearly as big as our differences with Bush." And it is important to remember that parties often define what they are for by being highly principled about what they are against. By opposing the expansion of slavery, Abraham Lincoln established himself as emphatically in favor of freedom. Precisely because Ronald Reagan defined himself as opposed to Communism and high taxes, no one had to ask if he had a "positive vision."
As Reagan understood better than anyone, the words of opposition must be accompanied by the music of aspiration. The critique of Bush's domestic agenda must rest on a sustained argument that if enacted, the president's program would set back great goals -- social justice, opportunity, community, public service -- that must be advanced through alternative policies. Thus, Democrats must make clear that they oppose Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy not because they hate the rich, but because a well-functioning government can expand opportunities for those who otherwise would have little chance for the ownership promised by Bush's "ownership society."
The Democrats' greatest challenge will be to create an alternative foreign policy that has credibility with those outside the party while uniting those within it. You don't have to be a hawk to agree with Democrat Will Marshall, of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute, when he points to polls showing that Democrats have lagged behind Republicans on national security questions since the 1970s. He argues that the party prospered in the 1990s in large part because foreign policy declined as a voting issue.
Kerry tried to thread the needle in 2004 by opposing Bush's approach while insisting that he, too, would be tough on terrorism. It didn't work. On this question, Dean may have a Nixon-to-China opportunity: As a leader with credibility among the party's doves, he may be well placed to bring together the party's feuding factions to create a tough internationalism that is the only plausible counter to Bush's approach. This task is political, but also intellectual and moral, and one the party cannot evade.
Advocates of the "alternatives" route need to remember how tough Bill Clinton, the king of new ideas, was in attacking the first President Bush on economics, foreign policy -- and just about everything else. Advocates of opposition know that down the road, the party will need some galvanizing ideas to convince the undecided that Democrats are serious about governing. Remember, Newt Gingrich followed up his successful opposition tactics with the "Contract With America."
Ideas vs. Organization. But really, how important are ideas? Was it George Bush's ideas that won in 2004? Or was it Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman's exceptional organization of local precincts, conservative churches, business groups, gun owners, abortion foes and Hollywood haters?
Organization without a cause is sterile. But a cause without organization is hopeless. Democrats need to ask themselves some very hard questions -- hard, because parts of the party won't like the answers. For example, the party needs to revive its state organizations, but some states have such poor organizations that investing in them will just be throwing money away. For all the talk about the GOP having stronger local parties, the Republican grass-roots effort in 2004 was largely built by the national party and national fundraising efforts.
It's not just the old Democratic machines that are moribund or nonexistent. The party's most important allies, the unions, are as weak as they have been in decades. Republicans, meanwhile, can rely on national networks that are rooted locally: conservative churches especially, but also small business groups, gun clubs and various "family values" organizations.
Thus, Dean takes over a party that is at least one election cycle behind the Republicans -- and in many ways further behind than that.
Do the long-term trends favor the Republicans or the Democrats? The answer is by no means obvious.
On the one hand: The Republicans are doing very well in many of the nation's growing outer suburbs, and conservative churches are more engaged in politics than ever. Meanwhile, the blue states in the Northeast and Midwest have, over several decades, seen their populations and electoral clout shrink relative to other parts of the country.
On the other hand: Social attitudes on all manner of issues, including gay rights, are more liberal than they used to be. Rural America, a great source of strength for Bush, is losing electoral clout. Voters under 30 were the one age group Kerry carried. It's unusual for the losing candidate to win the youngest voters, a heartening sign for the Democrats' future.
As they face that future, Dean and his party should not be ashamed of learning from George Bush. Bush has been a genius not only at mobilizing his party's base but also at nickel-and-diming the Democrats by stealing pieces of the old Democratic constituencies. He wooed more conservative Catholics and turned a small Democratic Catholic advantage into a small Republican one. He pulled over more Hispanic voters, even if the exact size of the GOP gains is a matter of hot dispute. He used national security issues to cut the Democrats' advantage among women.
There is one lesson from Bush's victory that Dean has already taken to heart: Bush won reelection for many reasons, but one of them was that he conveyed a sense that he knew where he wanted to take the country, and why. Bush cut into Democratic constituencies not by pretending that he was a Democrat, but by appealing to their social conservatism or their hawkishness on foreign policy. The appeal to these swing groups -- it will pain Democrats to hear this -- was rooted in principle.
Dean's flaws are well known, and he'll be under tremendous pressure from the competing factions of the must-do crowd. His greatest potential strength, which he sought to bring home in his acceptance speech yesterday, is that he understands how much rank-and-file Democrats yearn to fight for things that matter and to stand for more than just what consultants tell them they should say. Democrats know Dean's chairmanship will be a hell of a ride, but they're willing to take some risks to get off the road to nowhere.
Author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post columnist, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor at Georgetown University.