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November 13, 2008

The Vindication of Howard Dean


There were quite a few winners associated with the Obama campaign, but one man has gotten less credit than most – and greatly deserves it, for more than one reason. And that man is Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.


Roll Call and others have praised Dean for his 50-state strategy, adopted shortly after his election as DNC chairman in 2005, and the manner in which it paved the way for Barack Obama's victories in several traditionally red states. But Dean's 2004 presidential campaign deserves a great deal of credit as well, for serving as a model for Obama's own winning race.


Sure, Dean's '04 campaign was marred by an organizational meltdown in Iowa, and the literal meltdown of the "Dean scream." But prior to that, the Dean presidential effort was made of much the same strategy and themes that Obama carried to victory four years later.


When he ran for president in 2004, Dean was thought of as something of a radical, despite having been a relatively centrist governor of Vermont. This was mostly because of his temperament, but also because of his vociferous opposition to President Bush, and because he had always opposed the Iraq war, which at the time was considered much more of an outlying position that it is now.


Dean has been largely vindicated by history on the last two points. And as chairman, Dean has been largely able to keep his temper in check – after all, he appears on TV less often than you'd think. Contrast that with his predecessor at the DNC, Clinton crony Terry McAuliffe, who appeared on Meet the Press and other Sunday shows seemingly every other week.


Key pillars of Dean's 2004 campaign include a candidate who was a Washington outsider new to the national political scene, opposition to the failure of both the Bush presidency and the war in Iraq, pioneering use of Internet fundraising and galvanizing of the youth vote.


All of these themes, of course, were later adopted by Obama, who succeeded where Dean failed because he did it all better than Dean did, and also because public opinion caught up with the strategy much more by 2008 than in 2004. Dean, it turns out, wasn't crazy. He was just four years ahead of his time.


Sure, after the '04 loss of Dean and then the failure to unseat President Bush, the idea of Howard Dean becoming DNC chairman seemed sort of ridiculous. After all, how could the Democrats charge back into the majority with a man synonymous to most with anger, chaos and defeat?


But surprisingly, Dean's run in the job has been a huge success. While all the Democrats did under McAuliffe was lose – first the 2002 midterms, and then the 2004 general election – the Dems swept into control of both houses of Congress in 2006, followed by Obama's victory last week. John Kerry's strategy of holding all of the Gore states, winning two or three more, and effectively ceding the rest of the country crashed and burned. Something new was clearly needed.


Many scoffed at Obama's 50-state strategy at the time that it was proposed. After all, four years ago, phrases like “permanent Republican majority” were being tossed around regularly, and not only by Karl Rove. But now, the Democrats have won big twice in a row, have control of the presidency and Congress, and the Republicans have been reduced to a weakened rump, rapidly becoming whiter, older and more Southern.


Dean has announced he will not remain at the DNC. It's generally been a four-year job, and Dean has been mentioned as a possible Obama cabinet appointment. But regardless of what lies ahead for Dean, Democrats owe him their thanks for where their party is today. That even includes those of us – myself included – who never supported him either for president or DNC chairman.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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