Tuesday, February 8, 2005

The Dean Revolution

Tim Grieve sums up how Howard Dean took over the race for the DNC chair.

Howard Dean’s ascension in the DNC race has been so steady, so seemingly inevitable, that there will be a ho-hum quality to the proceedings when he’s actually elected this weekend in Washington. It’s easy to forget what a revolution this actually is.

Ryan Lizza reminds us in The New Republic. “The DNC chair race has exposed deep fissures within the Democratic Party,” Lizza writes. “Some of these are ideological, but the real story of the race is the diffusion of power away from Washington and to new people and entities that have rushed to fill the power vacuum at the top of the party. When the Democrats control the White House, the president can simply pick the chair of the party. But, even when out of power, Democratic pooh-bahs traditionally rally around a consensus figure and present him to the DNC members as a fait accompli. An open process with all the trappings of a modern political campaign–including a seven-candidate field, fund-raising, regional debates, and smear campaigns in the press–is unprecedented in the party’s history.”

Not everyone is thrilled with the revolution, of course. James Carville says that “somebody should have fixed this damn thing in November” to avoid the embarrassment of a party looking disorganized and weak. But as Lizza explains, “every attempt to rig the race failed, revealing that the levers of power in the Democratic Party have shifted out of Washington’s hands.”

That’s certainly true where the DNC is concerned. As Lizza notes, the 447 members of the DNC are generally local party operatives and activists, frequently frustrated that the national party gives their states neither the time nor the money they deserve. Howard Dean promised to send money to state parties and compete against the Republicans everywhere. Establishment Democrats tried to cut Dean off at the pass; Bill Clinton tried to recruit Wes Clark, Chuck Schumer urged Terry McAuliffe to stay on, Nancy Pelosi pushed pro-lifer Tim Roemer. Guess which approach spoke to the local-minded DNC members more?

Whether Dean’s rise signals a shift in Democratic power more generally is open to debate. True, as Lizza writes, big party donors like Leo Hindery can no longer drop into a DNC meeting and expect that the endorsements of people like Dick Gephardt will give them the DNC chairmanship by acclamation. (Lizza says that Hindery’s aides were so thunderstruck by the blog-enduced animosity toward their man at a DNC meet-and-greet in Orlando that they sent him home before he appeared, leaving some Democratic operatives to salute him in absentia with drinks from his hotel mini-bar.) But there’s a difference between controlling the 447 members of the DNC and controlling the party, a difference between winning the DNC chairmanship and winning the Democratic nomination for the presidency or the White House itself. Dean has climbed the first hurdle. The real work — for him and for his party — begins now.

Given the Wally Cox/Underdog approach that Harry Reid has taken so far (see below) as the most prominent voice of the Democrats, Dr. Dean does indeed have his work cut out for him.

To those of us who backed Howard Dean in the run-up to the primaries last year and in 2003, now it’s our turn. (And James Carville can kiss my squirrel.)