This piece is part of our Jan. 7, 2018, Reflection Issue, in which we take a step back from the daily onslaught of news and controversy and try to get some perspective by reexamining the past. We gathered newsmakers who took part in pivotal Washington events over the past 30 years and asked them to talk about those experiences and possibly unearth new lessons and new ways of looking at the present. As part of this exercise, we sat down with former Vermont governor Howard Dean, political consultant Joe Trippi and blogger Markos Moulitsas to revisit what many consider the first Internet campaign: Dean's 2004 presidential bid.
In 2003, Dean was an obscure ex-governor of a small state when he confounded Beltway pundits by mounting a serious primary challenge to John Kerry, the front-runner for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. Part of Dean's success had to do with his unscripted style. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa hailed him as "the Harry Truman of our time" and "the kind of plain-spoken Democrat we need." (A sibling of his once used a different term: "radioactive.") By comparison, Forbes magazine has referred to Kerry as "profoundly boring." Another part of Dean's success was his ability to rally support, both financial and rhetorical, online, in a way that no presidential candidate had done before. Dean's champions included some of the earliest political bloggers, including Jerome Armstrong and Matthew Gross of MyDD, and Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos.
For many, Dean's campaign marked the moment the Internet began reshaping American politics — a transformation that Americans learned in 2016 is far from over. The last presidential contest featured Russian Twitter bots, hacked emails and a frog meme hijacked by white supremacists. So, we invited Dean, Trippi (his 2004 campaign manager), Armstrong and Moulitsas to our offices to chat about that seminal campaign and the challenges the Democratic Party faces going forward.
The discussion was scheduled to take place Nov. 6. But like the former governor's presidential bid, the odds of it happening looked improbable at first. Armstrong could not make it. Then about four hours before it was to start, Dean emailed that his plane was delayed in Burlington, Vt. (One message read: "There is really no point in making alternate arrangements right now because this involves the airlines which as you know are among the least reliable and least truthful corporations in America.") Trippi had already set out on the two-hour drive from his house in Maryland to downtown Washington, and upon learning Dean's plane might not take off, he turned around and headed home. Dean's plane did take off, and Trippi then turned around again, back toward the District. When he finally arrived in our lobby, unsmiling, and was told Dean still had not arrived, he griped: "Howard Dean, still disrupting my life after all these years!" He perked up during the photo shoot, telling Moulitsas that Doug Jones, the Democrat whom Trippi was advising in the Alabama Senate race, had "a real shot" of winning. This was a few days before Jones's Republican opponent, Roy Moore, faced sexual assault allegations. Jones won on Dec. 12.
In the end, we had to settle for Dean's voice on speakerphone. While we waited for Dean's call, Trippi, Moulitsas and Washington Post reporter David Weigel took us back to the early aughts, when anger was building among liberals over the war in Iraq, which began in 2003. Some of that anger was directed at the 29 Senate Democrats who voted to authorize military force, including Kerry.
"One of the things that sparked me to work for Dean is that it was so clear to me that most of this was happening out of fear," Trippi explained. "The Democrats thought they had made a mistake by voting against the first war in Iraq [in 1991, under President George H.W. Bush]. There were only one or two people in the party who had the guts [in 2003] to get up and say how crazy this was: Dean. [Retired Gen. Wesley] Clark. [Ohio Rep. Dennis] Kucinich, maybe —"
"Yeah, but he didn't really count," Moulitsas said of the Ohio congressman with a penchant for conspiracy theories.
"The war vote was what created the energy inside to do something, to stand up to whatever was going on in the party," Trippi said.
"When did you first hear about Dean running?" Weigel asked Moulitsas.
"From Jerome Armstrong," he said. "I was like, 'Governor of Vermont. Really?' "
Support for a Dean candidacy was already welling up by March 2003, when Dean gave a rousing speech at the California Democratic Party convention. "I was there. It was electric," Moulitsas said.
In June 2003, Dean formally joined a crowded primary field that included Kerry, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the Rev. Al Sharpton, former U.S. senator Carol Moseley Braun, Clark and Kucinich. It was Dean's campaign, however, that Trippi called "the first rebellion within the party" against what they saw as the Democrats' drift rightward. "We had triangulated ourselves to irrelevance," Moulitsas said.
The party establishment was not impressed. Weigel asked Trippi what it was like to pitch Dean's candidacy to donors and party leaders: "Were there times when you had to convince people?"
"Just about everybody. All the way through that campaign," Trippi responded. "The most famous quote from the Kerry campaign was that the bar scene from 'Star Wars' was how most Democrats looked at the Dean campaign."
He offered an example: "Anytime there was a meeting among all the candidates about debates, or anything like that, the campaign managers would get together to go over the rules. It was like at Thanksgiving, there was a big kids' table and a little kids' table." The big kids included Kerry, Edwards, Gephardt and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, even though he dropped out of the race before the primaries. The small kids' table, Trippi said, included Moseley Braun, Sharpton and Dean: "It didn't matter if all ... of us were for something." They were always overruled.
But Dean didn't need them so much, it turned out. "The other thing that was going on was this blog thing was really starting to happen," Trippi said.
"To this day, Joe was the first person of any note to take us seriously," Moulitsas said.
"They were much more powerful than I realized," Trippi said. "And they rallied to people like Dean and Clark, and that gave them both a bigger boost," especially against Kerry and Gephardt, who had voted for the Iraq War.
When Dean finally called into our discussion, he said he was somewhat oblivious to the high-tech goings-on. "Running for president was a 27-hour-a-day job. Tons of people at headquarters were reading [MyDD and Daily Kos]. But you can't really keep up with blogs while you're running."
The depth of Dean's support became clear when he had a rocky appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," the day before he formally announced. Tim Russert grilled him about his medical deferment during the Vietnam War, among other subjects. Some observers were not satisfied by Dean's answers. The ABC News online political report "The Note" panned Dean's performance, saying that Dean had "failed miserably ... in a key Beltway ritual," and came off as "thin-skinned, unprepared, stuttering."
By contrast, his supporters were fuming. "We hated [Russert]," Moulitsas said. "It was like, 'These a--holes are really out of touch.' "
More important, despite Dean's inartfulness — or maybe because of it — money poured in. "I had two screens on my desk," Trippi recalled: one showing the interview, the other tracking the amount of online contributions. "You could see all the talking heads saying he's finished, he's done. Meanwhile, the dashboard kept spinning. And I thought, 'Oh these people are going to be in for a surprise.' "
"I revere Tim Russert," Trippi added, "but that was my first moment where I thought, 'Tim, you don't know what the f--- you're talking about.' "
It could also be that Dean's supporters were especially forgiving. Trippi said one of his favorite moments during the campaign was the first time Dean participated in a live blog. "Howard comes on and says, 'You're terrific.' And the bloggers are like, 'Uh, okay ...' " Trippi recalled. But it worked because to his supporters, "the most authentic moment in politics has just happened because this is really him, struggling and trying to blog. We didn't try to hide anything."
"At events, people always lather me up: 'He did the first Internet campaign.' I didn't," Dean said. "We were a small operation" with a lot of young volunteers. (Deanie-Babies, they were called.) "We let the 23-year-olds do whatever they wanted."
"Was there chagrin on the part of the media from people who dismissed you before?" Weigel asked. Dean replied: "I think they were more outraged. They hate being wrong. It's like 13-year-olds have their own culture and they all believe each other's bulls---."
"What was the worst moment of the 2004 race?" Weigel asked.
"Hmmm. It wasn't the 'scream speech,' " Dean said, referring to his now-famous appearance after he came in third in the Iowa caucuses, when he screeched, "Yeah!" (At one point, I had trouble hearing Dean and almost said, "I know you can project," but thought the better of it.)
The Dean Scream came to be seen as the unofficial end of his campaign, but Dean said the worst moment was three weeks earlier when he realized his momentum was "slipping away." "I was going to rallies, and I began to realize the same people are following me around," he said. "I felt like Phish or the Dead."
"I don't blame the scream speech. I don't blame anyone but me. I was from a small state. I didn't have the national experience," Dean went on. "But then again, if I had been as experienced at a national level, I wouldn't have been as exciting a candidate."
Time was running short, so we moved on to the present-day Democratic Party and its prospects. (Donna Brazile's memoir of the 2016 race, "Hacks," came out the day after we talked.) "One of the challenges we have when you go to the ballot box is you don't look at Candidate X. You look at the party," Moulitsas said. "We do a really good job of s----ing on our party brand. It is a problem we have to solve."
Weigel asked whether young people would ever flock to the Democratic Party the way they have to the Labour Party in Britain or if they were too cynical. "Whatever young people want, Trump has stepped on," Dean said. "The future of our party [is bright]. ... Young people agree with Democrats. Our demographics are a lot better, but we're going to have to adjust. We're going to have to help them build an institution they care about."
Annys Shin is an articles editor for the magazine. Post staff writers David Weigel and Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.