Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Surgical Strike

Howard Dean has a tough assignment in his new role as a Kerry advocate: get the grassroots and small donor base energized for the Democratic ticket and keep them out of the hands of Nader.

Dean’s meteoric rise and fall will be debated long after the election is over. But one thing his supporters and critics alike acknowledge is the impact he’s had so far on the Democratic Party, a role that his new organization is designed to perpetuate. Democracy for America will use the innovative Internet tools devised during the campaign to raise small donations, encourage progressive candidates to run at the local level, and bring new voters into the fold who will keep the Democratic Party on track.


To get himself back in the game, Dean has focused his organization on expanding the pool of small donors and encouraging grassroots organizing. If he can speak to people as an activist the way he did as a candidate — and help defeat George Bush — Dean just might gain credibility and a constituency.

“Republicans have done a better job than we have in terms of marshaling their resources and using grassroots support in an effective manner,” says Paul Maslin, Dean’s campaign pollster. “It’s not beyond the pale to say that Dean, who broke all records, could motivate the base and play a substantial role. But wherever [this new organization] leads, the whole point is, he revitalized the party.”

Of course, not everyone’s convinced Dean will succeed in doing much more than he’s already demonstrated, raise money and agitate but not necessarily get nominated.

“It’s easy to confuse an information network with an organization,” says Marshall Ganz, a long-time organizer and lecturer in public policy at Harvard University and an advisor to the Dean campaign. “If the approach is the same as it was during the campaign, it’ll be just another MoveOn, which has already been done. The Internet was a lot more effective at raising money than it was at delivering votes. In terms of helping people get elected, I’ll believe it when I see it. The amount of money they raised and squandered is phenomenal. Who’s going to say, Come teach me how to do that?”

But even Ganz, who laments the failure of the Dean campaign to translate incredible energy into an effective organization, believes Dean did the Democratic Party a favor. Much like a Coast Guard cutter, he has broken up the ice so another, statelier ship could sail through. To bring that ship into safe harbor, Dean has made it clear he’s as committed as ever to defeating George Bush first.

To that end, according to a well-placed source close to Dean, Kerry and Dean have discussed Dean’s projected role in challenging Ralph Nader, whose fourth run for president has Democrats, Independents and even some Greens apoplectic. Dean has been careful to praise Nader’s accomplishments before urging people not to be seduced by a quixotic campaign. This is a tactical move to avoid driving people into Nader’s arms by being too combative. But should Nader manage to get on the ballot in some key states and threaten to throw them to Bush, expect the gloves to come off. [Salon.com]

As a long-time observer of Democratic politics, this is very impressive – uniting the party four months before the convention behind one candidate. Of course, there is strong motivation to do so. Not only is Bush the most tempting target the Democrats have had since Barry Goldwater in 1964, they are up against the most vicious and arrogant campaign since LBJ ran for the Senate in Texas.