This coming Saturday, February 12, the 447 members of the Democratic National Committee will meet in Washington to elect the party’s chairman for the next four years, and barring an accident of fate or an act of God, the new boss will be Howard Dean. Of course, there’s no such thing as a mortal lock when it comes to Dean—a candidate with a proven capacity for total system failure. But assuming Dean avoids a replay of his meltdown a year ago in Iowa, his resurrection will be almost as remarkable as his collapse: from national joke to titular head of the world’s oldest political party without so much as passing Go.
The reaction to Dean’s prospective coronation has been, on both sides of the partisan aisle, predictably overwrought. Washington Democrats mutter darkly (but not for attribution) about a disaster in the making. Dick Morris bleats in the Post that the phrase “Chairman Howard Dean” amounts to a Democratic “suicide note.” Among Republicans, meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh, per usual, captures the prevailing sentiment: “Please, make him chairman. Please? Please?? Please???”
Let me say that I am not now, nor have I ever been, any kind of Deaniac. By dint of his temperament and résumé, Dean struck me as a glaringly flawed and hopeless presidential candidate; on my list of Democratic nominees, he placed a distant fifth—after Clark, Edwards, Gephardt, and Kerry, in alphabetical order.
And yet I find myself, despite myself, thinking that Dean is unlikely to prove a disaster as Democratic chairman. There’s a decent chance, in fact, that he’ll prove a damn good one. More to the point, the angst over Dean’s elevation among some in the party seems to me a textbook case of psycho-political displacement: obsessing over the Democratic messenger as a means of avoiding the thornier questions surrounding the Democratic message.
For Dean, the transformation from front-runner to prohibitive favorite in the race for chairman occurred in New York during the final weekend of January, when he and the six other candidates enacted the last in a series of dog-and-pony shows for DNC members around the country. On Saturday morning at the Roosevelt Hotel, the hallway chatter was all about whether the Democratic Establishment might rally around a unifying, stop-Dean alternative. Then came word that the doctor had gained the backing of Clinton loyalist Harold Ickes—a gesture taken by many as a sign of acquiescence, if not endorsement, by the Royal Family.
“ “The Democrats are rooted now inside the Senate—ugh,” says Robert Reich. “The argument for Dean is that he’ll help to change that.”
Suddenly it was hard to fathom what was going to halt Dean’s ascension. (A party Establishment not including Harold Ickes? What Establishment would that be?) And after surveying the six-pack of anti-Deans onstage in the Roosevelt’s ballroom, what had been merely difficult to fathom became all but impossible.
There were Donnie Fowler and Simon Rosenberg, two youthful organizers, both smart and savvy and switched on to new technology, but both looking more like Karl Rove’s caddies than his battle-tested equals. There were Martin Frost and Tim Roemer, a pair of former congressmen with views sufficiently far to the right (on faith and abortion, respectively) that they were hissed and heckled that morning.
There was Wellington Webb, the former mayor of Denver, laboring to convince an audience populated by the likes of Al Sharpton that the future of the party lay out West. There was former Ohio party chairman David Leland, who displayed a nuanced grasp of the intersection of politics and sports by declaring his desire to be “the Joe Torre of the Democratic Party—or the Terry Francona.”
And then there was the former governor of Vermont, his stature alternately enhanced and diminished by the company he was keeping. Substantively, there wasn’t much daylight between Dean and his rivals. Like them, he pledged to run a “50-state campaign,” ticking off his support in red domains such as Florida and Oklahoma. Like them, he caressed every local-party G-spot he could put his fingers on, promising a flood of DNC cash for down-ticket races. But unlike them, Dean sparked a genuine jolt of excitement, closing his talk with a story about an Evangelical Christian who, despite disagreeing with him about abortion and homosexuality, supported his presidential run because Dean refused to compromise his beliefs. “We can change the way we talk,” Dean intoned to lusty cheers, “but we need to remain people of deep conviction!”
To many Democrats, Dean’s convictions—and his inability to shut up about them—are precisely the problem. He’s too liberal, they say. Too hot, too strident. Too much the symbol of all things blue.