Dean as Prophet

Ari Berman has a very nice piece in The Nation about Howard Dean and his legacy called “the prophet.” Here’s a taste:

It almost feels like ancient history, but “four years ago the Democratic Party was in a very different condition,” Doctor Dean says at the beginning of his talk at the Y. Republicans had just retained the White House, gained four seats in the Senate and three in the House, and held twenty-eight governorships. Bill Frist was Senate majority leader, Dennis Hastert was House Speaker, George Bush’s approval rating was at a healthy 50 percent and Karl Rove planned a “permanent Republican majority.” It was “not a fun time to be a Democrat,” Dean cracks.

How quickly things change. Four years later Democrats elected Obama with 67 million votes. They picked up seven seats in the Senate (with Minnesota still pending at press time)and twenty-one in the House, and they hold sixty of ninety-nine state legislative chambers. Obama’s extraordinary campaign and Bush’s remarkable mishandling of the country’s domestic and foreign policies deserve much of the credit for the Democratic Party’s resurgence, but so does Howard Dean. Before virtually any major politician, Dean not only sensed that the era of Republican ascendancy could be stopped but also how to do it, first through his trailblazing though unsuccessful presidential campaign of 2004, and then through his forceful stewardship of the party as DNC chair since 2005. “Dean gave the party a mission and a focus,” says Paul Tewes, a top Obama strategist who ran day-to-day operations at the DNC during the general election. “That’s a big deal when you’re out of power.” DNC member Donna Brazile calls Dean “one of the unsung heroes of this moment.”

As he prepares to step down as DNC chair in January, giving way to Obama’s handpicked successor, Dean has cemented his legacy as a prophetic, if underappreciated, visionary in the party [see Berman, “The Dean Legacy,” March 17]. When pundits saw the country hopelessly divided between red and blue — with the blue part of the map restricted to the West Coast, the Northeast and an increasingly embattled Midwest — Dean argued that the party had to compete everywhere. After the epic meltdown of his presidential campaign, punctuated by the endlessly looped “Dean scream” after the Iowa caucus, Dean took one of the most thankless jobs in Washington and turned it into a laboratory for one of the most exciting experiments in modern Democratic Party history. He radically devolved power away from Washington by cultivating a new generation of state political organizers and lending support (and money) to long-forgotten local parties, bucking the Beltway establishment and enabling grassroots activists. He rehabilitated his party, and his image, in the process. Dean’s fifty-state strategy, as it came to be known, “fertilized the landscape” for Obama’s fifty-state campaign, Brazile says. If his strategy is extended during the Obama administration, we’ll find out what a true fifty-state party looks like.


I think that’s all right. Looking back on the past five years, it’s clear to me that the white secular governor of a small New England state isn’t really the person who’s best-suited to spreading the progressive message to the largest possible audience. That’s not the worst thing in the world — my biography makes me even less well-suited than Dean to the task — but it really is a crippling flaw in a would-be president. Barack Obama with his rhetorical skills, his enormous charisma, and his fascinating life story is a better leader. But at the time Dean stepped onto the national stage, there wasn’t anyone else to do it. John Kerry, longtime foreign policy guy and highly decorated war veteran, could have been the guy. And after the 2004 election, Kerry really did become the guy (go back and read his underrappreciated 2008 convention speech) but that wasn’t him in 2004. Nor John Edwards. Most of the people who seemed like they’d make good presidential candidates hopelessly compromised themselves on the war. Someone was needed, and Dean was that guy.