Friday, January 09, 2009

A moment to give credit where it is due. To Howard Dean and the original 'Deaniacs.'

Barack Obama has announced that his choice for chair of the Democratic National Committee is Governor Tim Kaine of Virgnia.

I've seen Kaine on television, and he is good in front of the cameras. He certainly has showed his loyalty to the new President, endorsing Obama early and helping him win a key primary, the first big contest after Obama and Hillary Clinton fought to a draw on Super-Duper Tuesday. I believe that Kaine will continue to build on the work that outgoing chair Howard Dean did.

I'd like to take a moment though and thank any of you who were once "Deaniacs." I can't say that I was, having supported Wesley Clark in the primary election for President in 2004.

No matter. Let's go back to that year for a moment. As Democrats, we'd had it drilled into us by the right that 1) we were in a permanent and getting smaller minority, and that 2) the only way for Democrats to win was to adopt the Bill Clinton/DLC model: run more towards the right and turn our backs firmly on the notion that government could help people. Instead, let Republicans set the terms of debate, fight on their turf, using their language and accept as a premise that we were supposed to compete in terms of who could cut taxes, dismantle government programs and privatize services the fastest. And competing on 'their turf' was rhetorical only. Even Democrats who won (think Bill Clinton) did so by figuring out where they would compete and just writing off most of the rest of the country. A lot of people-- including Democrats, assumed after the GOP seized Congress 1994 that the only way a Democrat could win was to try and stitch together a 50% + 1 type majority (or a plurality) and not go for anything that might be considered bold. Too risky, they said. As a Democrat from a rural part of the West, I can tell you that there was both apathy and a certain sense of resentment that the national party had ignored areas like ours, just assuming we'd all vote for Republicans and hoping to perhaps outgun us once in a blue moon by turning out more urban Democrats.

Ronald Reagan was considered untouchable, and even Democratic politicians often referred to him as one who they looked to for ideas.

Howard Dean rejected all of that. Of course he had reason to. Howard Dean had been elected Governor of Vermont. Vermont was a state that even FDR never carried, losing it and Maine when he won every other state in 1936. Vermont was once a part of what was known as 'rock-ribbed Republican' New England, and as recently as 1988 it was still considered a GOP stronghold. But something had been going on there. Led by progressives as disparate as the owners and employees of Ben and Jerry's ice cream, and openly socialist congressman (now Senator) Bernard Sanders, liberalism had struck a chord in the Green Mountain State. Dean, along with Sanders and others articulated a vision of an America that was better than the mean-spirited 'sink or swim' land of the right. During the 1990's and early 2000's the state had moved until it was among the most progressive in America. And unlike, say, California where much of the shift has been fueled by immigration of people with fresh ideas, in Vermont the huge majority of the population was born and raised in that state. People just began to see things differently. And Howard Dean, as Governor, implemented the nation's first civil unions law and got the legislature to pass a plan giving health care coverage to all the children in the state. He also balanced the budget in the process.

And then he took his plan and ran for President. He didn't win the nomination-- done in by his now infamous geography lesson on the night he was upset in the Iowa caucuses, but those of us in the party had seen the future.

After Howard Dean failed to win, he ran for DNC chair in early 2005. By that time, I'd come around and let my DNC members know that was who I supported. And he won. And when the Bush administration tried early that year to privatize Social Security, a revitalized Democratic party hit back hard, and blocked it in Congress. Suddenly it was Republicans who were crossing over to vote with us, not the reverse. Then Dr. Dean (he is a physician, in fact) developed something new and revolutionary. He called it the '50 state strategy.' It involved sending paid organizers to every state. Even states that were solidly Republican were targeted, at least for organizing local party structure that could help in local and perhaps national races. Dean was blasted by some Democrats who felt he was wasting money in places that "Democrats will never win." They forgot where he came from. I imagine that the Alf Landon folks sat around looking at the 1936 map and figuring that at least Democrats would never win in Vermont. So he kept at it, and sent paid staff to build party organization everywhere-- Texas, Utah, Mississippi, Alaska, you name it. No place was off the list. I know that while some people here in rural Arizona who were not paid did a lot of work to revitalize the party locally, it was helpful that there are paid staff at the state level to help provide leadership, guidance and structure.

Now granted, the failures of conservatism have been on full display the past few years. But really, there hadn't been any great successes before that for at least a couple of decades (and that was at best fleeting,) and let's remember that in both the 2002 and 2004 elections we had been outmaneuvered by the Karl Roves and Tom DeLays who ran the GOP (in October 2002, you may recall, the economy stank so Congressional Republicans-- at the behest of Rove-- changed the subject and insisted on the vote on the Authorization to Use Military Force in Iraq (AUMF) even though the start of the war was almost half a year away, and in 2004 the reverse happened and the GOP changed the subject away from Iraq by making the election about John Kerry instead of their own incumbent President-- a hard task to accomplish but it's what they did.)

All Howard Dean did was play better hardball than the GOP did. And his catch in two election cycles: A net of 54 congressional seats, it looks like 14 Senate seats and the White House. And here is a number that might put his success in perspective: Republicans held onto the Wyoming at-large congressional district by a relatively narrow margin. Had they not, then all fifty states would have included at least one Democrat in their delegation (Senate or House.) So right now, in forty-nine states, voters have seen fit to send a Democrat to either the house or the Senate. Incidentally, there are seven states that right now send only Democrats to Washington (four in New England, plus North Dakota, New Mexico and Hawaii.) Barack Obama even competed for-- and won-- Nebraska's second congressional district (which was worth an electoral vote.) This is Nebraska, that we are talking about. Obama also won Virginia (which had not voted for a Democrat since 1964), Indiana (also not since 1964) and North Carolina (not since 1976). In all of this, the 'fifty state strategy' played a part. The party organization was there, and ready to be put into play (as it also was in helping to win a congressional seat in Idaho, hold one in Alabama and win a Senate race in Alaska.)

Credit Howard Dean for that. Good-bye Doctor. May you stay involved.

Not bad for a simple country doctor from Vermont. But it would never have happened if millions of ordinary Americans hadn't come together and backed a guy who totally rejected the conventional wisdom of how Democrats could win elections. Thanks again if you were one of them.


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