Will the Real Howard Dean Please Stand Up?

by on February 4th, 2005

It’s all over but the count. With Frost out of the race and Labor non-committal, the vote crunchers have all but crowned Dean DNC chair. Congratulations are apparently in order. But with those comes questions about the actual nature of a Dean Chairmanship. Questions such as which Howard, exactly, will be in evidence as he labors to revitalize the sagging fortunes of the Democrats: Dean the governor or Dean the presidential candidate?

You see, if one looks back on Dean’s career as a politician it becomes clear that the darling of the indigo urban left was not always so true blue. A quick perusal of the Dean record in Vermont will reveal that the same “radical” that signed civil unions into law was also a strong advocate for the gun lobby. The latter day anti-war candidate was less recently the centrist, self-described, New Democrat who balanced budgets and fostered a business friendly climate in his state. Many a commentator from The Green Mountain State, left, right and center, made many a comment that they barely recognized their former governor in his new guise as Democratic wing slinger. But as we know, Howard is a politician. And the best ones are masters at the art of reinvention.

The ringmaster was an early supporter of Dean for President. Though decidedly not from a red state – If anything Vermont is blue-black – he otherwise fit the description of a serious contender given his record and resume. I continued to support him as the viable anti-war choice because I proudly share that position. But I suspected it might well prove to be his Achilles heel in facing the then popular war President and I was apparently right on that count. The Party saw Kerry as the mano on mano choice to match Bush’s cheesy jingoism. The rest as they say is now history.

Where the ringmaster was admittedly wrong – hate it – is in warning that Roemer would emerge as the behind the beltway anti-Dean choice for DNC. But I wasn’t alone on that one once Reid and Pelosi tipped their hands. In the end though Roemer was just too red for blue being just barely this left side of Mad Dog Zell Miller. No regrets there.

Perhaps Dean’s triumph was inevitable. Howard has the star power in a race where everyone else utterly lacks name-recognition except among the most wonkish political junkies – like yours truly. And star power is fine as far as it goes. The trouble is that the DNC chair is a strategic role if it is indeed anything beyond that of a Fundraiser in Chief alone. The GOP now has a consummate strategist heading the RNC in Mehlman and we need a Chairman with strategic skills to match if we hope to turn things around. And, crucially, those skills must include the ability to craft a message that reconnects with disaffected Democrats ACROSS this nation as well as one that connects with new sources of Dem support: a big tent approach. Dean the presidential candidate hardly exhibited such skills with his uncompromising Democratic Wing rhetoric; quite the opposite. Can Dean the centrist, consensus building governor now resurface to help build those bridges? One can only hope.

I like and respect Howard Dean. I will wholly support his and the DNC’s efforts to revitalize this party. I will do so because we Democrats need unity now more than ever. And I do sincerely hope Dean’s up to the job of Chairman and that he can successfully expand the scope and impact of that job. But in passing I think it’s important to note for the record that though Dean did indeed capitalize on strategists and fundraisers in his failed presidential bid, he himself is neither thing. Again, Howard is a politician and most recently a losing one. He didn’t just lose either, he got creamed. The Democrats are about to place at the helm of the DNC – that organ charged with the difficult but critical task of winning elections – a man whose most recent political legacy is the utter collapse and humiliating electoral defeat of a formerly a red hot campaign. Given this, is the ringmaster optimistic?


Kit Robinson