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Return of the Angry Man
Dean introduced himself to the party by visiting regional party offices, where he held confidential meetings and listened to complaints. His conviction is that the party has deserted its outposts in too many states. As the candidate who broke new ground in Internet fundraising and grass-roots motivating, he believes he's uniquely qualified to fix the gap.
One of his stops was at Vanderbilt University, where he faced a standing-room-only class. For the next 45 minutes, Dean lectured, bantered and spoke like a candidate. ("I do not believe that you can run enormous deficits year after year after year and not have consequences. I do not believe you can run a foreign policy based on petulance.") But Dean was almost as critical of Democrats. The class evolved into his first lengthy public explication of his view of the party, and his "idears" for fixing it, as he pronounces the word. "It is socially unacceptable in some parts of the country to be a Democrat," he observed. "The first thing we have to do is show up in 50 states and compete in 50 states. Second thing we're going to do is talk in a way that is not condescending."
Message has been a major problem for Democrats. "You ask people what Republicans stand for, they stand for less taxes, more defense and less government. If I ask you what Democrats stand for, there's going to be a poll in here," he said. If the Democrats' agenda is not clear, the party's liabilities are, at least to Dean. National security, he said, "is our biggest weakness." And as long as Democrats sound as if they are defending abortion, he declared, "we're going to lose the argument every time."
A student raised her hand. What was his specific plan for recovery? Dean ticked off several points. First, he would infuse state parties with cash and organizing help. The difference between the
Democratic and Republican operations in Ohio, where the presidential election turned, Dean hazarded, was that Democrats brought in thousands of volunteers from out of state. Republicans had thousands of volunteers in state, knocking on the doors of their neighbors. This lack of neighbor-to-neighbor presence, Dean suggested, was alienating.
Also, Democrats must contest races in all states, at all levels, in all years, not just presidential ones. "It is disrespectful not to come to Tennessee and Mississippi and Alabama as well as California and Michigan and Ohio . . . We need to come to Tennessee because what you could think of Democrats by watching [Republican] ads is all you're going to think of us unless we show up and make our case in person."
A young man stood up and asked what he could do to help the party, other than give money, which he didn't have. Dean bobbed on his feet, delighted with the question, because it allowed him to show off his best side -- the side that grew a presidential candidacy from a small Vermont operation with seven employees into a national campaign with 600,000 supporters.
"The number one thing you can do is run for office."
"I'm absolutely serious. I am not kidding."
The class grew quiet. Here was Dean as a Johnny Appleseed, sowing civics in the young. While Democrats have conceded parts of the country considered hostile, Republicans have left no office untested, he pointed out. The result is that Dems have no farm system, no ability to find young political talent in red states and groom it.
Run, he urged the students. Run for county road commissioner. Run for city council. "If you don't have people running for offices like county commissioner, who do you think is going to run for Congress a generation from now?