Dean Without Screams

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.

This critique of Dean, by now so familiar it borders on cliché, glosses over a number of things, starting with what the Democratic Party actually amounts to these days. “The Democratic Party doesn’t really exist as a national movement,” says former secretary of Labor Robert Reich. “It’s essentially a glorified fund-raising mechanism.” Indeed, the best-regarded Democratic chairmen of the past two decades—Paul Kirk, Ron Brown, and Terry McAuliffe—are those who’ve excelled at buckraking, and there’s reason to think that Dean will be every bit as skillful. His primary campaign set the standard for using the Internet to tap a new base of small Democratic donors. And given the continuing enthusiasm for him at the party’s MoveOn-ified grass roots, it’s hard to think of a man better suited to keeping the Democrats financially competitive in the post–McCain-Feingold era.

Similarly, the notion that Dean’s liberalism will be a flaming pink albatross around the party’s neck ignores some inconvenient realities. For one thing, the formal capacity of the DNC chairman to affect the party’s policy positions is close to nonexistent. And then there’s the fact, Republican agitprop aside, that Dean really isn’t much of a lefty. As a governor, he was a relentless budget-balancer who resisted tax increases, sided with business when there was conflict between jobs and the environment, and was chummy with the NRA. And the stances he adopted in his presidential run weren’t notably less centrist—except on Iraq. But even there, one always smelled in Dean’s position a strong whiff of opportunism, a way for a barely known underdog to gain a foothold in the race. Today it would be hard to find much variance between his posture and that of the Democratic mainstream on the war.

In fact, Dean’s positions on most matters of policy are well within the party mainstream. What vexes Democrats on Capitol Hill is that as chairman, he would almost certainly express his views loudly and frequently, establishing himself as a competing voice to the party’s elected officials. As Kerry drily said recently on Meet the Press, congressional Democrats are “not looking for a spokesperson in the chairmanship.”

Well, naturally, they’re not—especially one more charismatic and forceful than they are. Yet to many Democrats who reside beyond the Beltway, Dean’s acumen as a mouthpiece is a large part of what makes him an attractive option. “How much worse can you get than the spokespeople we’ve got now?” asks one such Democrat, a Kerry backer in the primaries. “Kerry is passionless, Hillary is triangulating, Gore’s a stiff and out of his mind. What Democrats need is someone who’s articulate, who’s spirited, who says interesting things that, while they may be controversial, people can rally around. And that’s Dean in spades.”

Reich puts it another way: “The Washington axis tends to cast the question in terms of right versus left, but the better way of looking at it is outside versus inside. The Republicans have somehow managed to root themselves outside of Washington, and it’s worked to their advantage. But the Democrats are rooted now essentially inside the Senate. Ugh. The argument for Dean is that he’ll help change that.”

The more fundamental problems facing Democrats, however, run a good deal deeper. They revolve around the now irrefutable fact that on a range of issues—from national security to values and even certain elements of economic policy—the party’s views no longer command the support of a majority of voters. For Democrats, the Sturm und Drang over whether Dean should be their spokesman is, to a degree, a diversion from a more essential conversation.

Yet even here Dean’s presence at the top of the DNC may ultimately prove salutary. Dean, being Dean, is sure to provoke his share of squabbles with other Democratic leaders. Some of these will be trivial, pointless, but others will be the kinds of fights that Democrats badly need to have. As the GOP learned in its long years in the political wilderness, battling internally over principles is the only path to progress. Or, as Republican strategist Bill Kristol has put it, “Party unity is overrated.”

And so is the notion of a universally popular Democratic chairman—a point borne out by what happened the last time the chairman’s race was openly contested, in 1988. Then, as now, the party was wailing and gnashing its teeth while simultaneously gazing at its navel. The contest for the chairmanship pitted centrist former Oklahoma congressman James Jones against Ron Brown, who because of his résumé—which featured stints as an adjutant to Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson—his liberalism, and his race was viewed by the party’s moderates as a catastrophe waiting to happen.

Then a funny thing occurred: Brown not only defeated Jones and went on to become a stellar chairman, he facilitated the rise of Bill Clinton and the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

In ways too numerous to list, Howard Dean is no Ron Brown. But it’s not beyond imagining that his chairmanship of the party will be equally confounding to the conventional wisdom that greets it today. Nixon and China, Ron Brown and Bill Clinton—Howard Dean and, say, Evan Bayh? Stranger things have happened.

Dean Without Screams