The New, New Howard Dean: Free Agent for the Left
Yes, that was Howard Dean -- former Vermont governor, former presidential contender, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee -- guest-hosting MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" last week.
"Howard Dean: Television Host" is the latest stop in a series of unpredictable career twists and turns that, according to those close to him, has ultimately allowed the former governor the freedom to speak up -- and out -- that fueled his electoral successes.
"He's always been known as someone who likes to speak his mind even when it's unpopular -- that's what attracted so many people to him in 2003 and 2004 when the party was so anemic -- and for the first time since 2004 he is really free to say what he thinks," said one former Dean adviser who has recently spoken to him.
That freedom has led to some disagreements with the Obama administration -- particularly on health care. Dean has emerged as perhaps the most high-profile advocate of the "public option," insisting that legislation without a government-run program isn't true reform.
Dean's online petition drive to get support for the public option -- standwithdrdean.com -- has drawn nearly 400,000 signatures; he has also written a book outlining his prescription (heyo!) for "real" health-care reform.
"Governor Dean is very happily working on two issues he cares about most: passing real health-care reform that includes the public option and continuing to build the infrastructure of the progressive movement," said Karen Finney, former DNC communications director. "He's always believed that the election of Barack Obama was the beginning, not the end, of the work we need to do."
The resurgence of Dean as a trusted outside voice on the liberal left comes just months after he made clear his desire to join the Obama administration -- preferably as the secretary of Health and Human Services or even as the surgeon general. (After being passed over for then-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in the former role, Dean told the Huffington Post that he "would have liked to have been secretary of HHS but it is the president's choice and he decided to go in a different direction.")
The pass-over highlighted what many Deaniacs believe to be an insufficient recognition on the part of Obama and his inner circle of how Dean laid the groundwork in 2004 for the president's victory four years later.
"Dean is underappreciated for his role pushing the Democratic Party to change," said Tom Matzzie, the former Washington director of MoveOn.org. "We saw a spark of the wave of grass-roots support that propelled Barack Obama to victory in 2008 with Dean's 2004 campaign."
Whatever the reason, Dean seems to have adjusted quickly to his outside-looking-in place in the new administration -- a spot that seems to best fit his natural maverick tendencies.
"I think on balance being on the outside has been good for him," said one senior Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly. "It's better than being the anonymous surgeon general or the deputy Health and Human Services secretary."
The axiom that one man's trash is another man's treasure holds true in politics as well.