Howard Dean's Impaired Vision

By Noam Scheiber
Tuesday, April 8, 2008; 12:16 PM

Okay, I admit it. I owe Howard Dean an apology. In 2006, I wrote that the Democratic National Committee chairman commanded little respect among Washington insiders and that he was lousy at the business of running a party. I complained that he was clinging to his 50-state strategy -- an effort to rebuild the party from the ground up -- at a cost of underfunding its congressional campaigns.

Dean still isn't very good at mechanics -- raise your hand if you think the Florida and Michigan primaries could have become a bigger fiasco -- and he lacks the stature to stop the nomination fight from dragging into the summer. But, on the bright side, the first round of the 50-state strategy wasn't the debacle I anticipated. Democrats notched a sweeping victory in the 2006 midterm elections. And some of the districts they won, in states like Kansas and New Hampshire, probably benefited from Dean's unorthodox spending.

It would be tempting to conclude, as Perry Bacon Jr. does in Sunday's Outlook section, that what Dean lacks in small-bore competence (e.g., primary calendars) he more than makes up for in vision. But before we proclaim Dean a prophet, we should ask whether his vision has actually been realized. In Bacon's telling, Dean's efforts as a presidential candidate and DNC chairman essentially paved the way for today's Democratic successes, most notably Barack Obama. There's a kernel of truth here. And yet the Obama campaign would never have made it out of Iowa without rewriting the Dean playbook.

Like Dean, Obama has married cutting-edge technology with grassroots organizing. But Dean's presidential campaign was much more of a bottom-up phenomenon -- sometimes more concerned with celebrating its supporters than with winning elections or changing public policy.

Not only did Dean and campaign manager Joe Trippi turn to their Internet activists for money and manpower; they afforded them enormous influence over strategy. In November of 2003, Trippi famously polled Dean activists to decide if the campaign should accept public financing. A few months earlier, Dean took an expensive four-day tour of such strategically meaningless cities as San Antonio, Portland and Chicago to commune with his online hordes. The New York Times presciently wondered "how such untraditional rallies will translate into the nuts-and-bolts of nominations like endorsements, voter registration, fund-raising and debates."

As party chairman, Dean has sometimes repeated the mistake of empowering the grassroots for its own sake. In the early days of the 50-state strategy, outsiders assumed it would increase coordination among Democrats: Dean would provide needed resources and, in return, would receive valuable voter information from state parties. But, back in 2006, a state chairman who'd hired three full-time staffers thanks to Dean's investment told me there had been zero discussion about sharing information. (DNC officials assured me then that these steps would be forthcoming.)

By contrast, Obama hasn't turned his campaign over to the grassroots so much as channeled grassroots energy into a more traditional campaign structure. Obama's Internet supporters have become precinct captains and canvassers; they help plan local campaign events. But strategic decisions always flow down from Obama's Chicago brain trust. The campaign made this clear last spring, when it took over a popular Obama MySpace page from the activist who'd created it. Such bigfooting would have been inconceivable for Dean and Trippi. For the Obama campaign, the move was necessary to ensure a coherence that the Deaniacs often lacked.

It's true, as Bacon writes, that Dean and Obama have a lot in common ideologically. Both were quick to oppose the war in Iraq. Both favor more populist positions than most '90s-era Democrats.

The difference is that Obama has frequently transcended his ideological base, while Dean became a captive of his. According to entrance polls, about 42 percent of Obama supporters in Iowa considered themselves either moderate or conservative, versus only 34 percent for Dean. A Pew Research Center poll conducted shortly after the 2004 election found that liberals accounted for more than 80 percent of Dean's activists. Even in the primary stage, Obama's broader appeal makes him a more resilient candidate.

More important, though, is the difference in their philosophies on how to advance a political agenda. Dean took a set of reasonably popular ideas -- enacting universal healthcare, restricting trade deals, ending the war in Iraq -- and helped make them less so by railing against Republicans and courting the "Democratic wing" of his party. For his part, Obama recognized that a solid majority of Americans favored these same positions by 2008. He bet that voters would support a candidate who embraced them as long as he or she didn't make it a partisan affair.

Dean, to borrow an analogy from the blogosphere, was like Barry Goldwater: He excited true believers, but made his party seem less appealing than it would have been on policy grounds alone. Obama is the opposite: a Reaganesque figure who makes his party more appealing than the sum total of its policies. Maybe you have to go through Goldwater to get to Reagan. But, in the end, only one of them can build a majority.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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