Dean for Chairman

What sort of Chairman would Howard Dean really make for the DNC?

Dean for Chairman

By Quentin Langley

Dateline 02 February 2005

There are many intelligent Republican strategists who hope that Howard Dean’s election as DNC Chairman would be, in the words of Chuck Muth of Citizen Outreach, “the gift that keeps on giving”. Muth is not alone. Many Democrats fear exactly what Muth hopes, that Dean’s election would severely damage the opposition. But would it?

The reasons for assuming that Dean would be a disastrous choice are plain and obvious. He is principally associated in the public mind with two things: an insurgent campaign for the Presidency which imploded and his appallingly misjudged “I have a scream” speech at the close of the Iowa caucuses. Some have even suggested that it was this moment which cost him the New Hampshire primary, and thus a fighting chance of the Democrat nomination

Let’s put that one to bed first. If he had lost Iowa to Dick Gephardt or John Edwards, he would indeed have been a credible force in New Hampshire, next door to his native Vermont. But in fighting fellow New Englander John Kerry, he lost all the advantage of home turf. Against that background, Dean was sure to lose New Hampshire.

The scream was certainly a blow to any claim of gravitas and struck almost everyone as un-Presidential. But Dean is no longer running for President, and the Democrats will want to elect a street-fighter. They will not be seeking an authoritative figure with the aura of a President. Or not for another three years.

Dean’s insurgent campaign for the nomination did not succeed, but it does not follow that it was poorly judged. Dean went into the campaign as former governor of a state so small that a decent sized city has a higher population. If the mayor of Dallas or Atlanta had run a campaign for President that had, even briefly, achieved front runner status, it would have been recognised as a major achievement.

Painted as an extremist by his opponents, Dean is actually much harder to classify. He supports gay rights, but also gun rights. He tapped into the anger Democrat activists felt toward the President, but in Vermont he governed as a mainstream Democrat.

His early decision to oppose the Iraq war was part of the positioning which propelled him to the front rank of Democrat candidates. Had he secured the nomination, it would probably not have helped him win this security conscious election. But opposing the Iraq war is not the preserve of a far-left fringe. Around half the American electorate agrees with him. Four years from now, if Iraq goes badly, an early decision to oppose the war will be seen as far-sighted. But from Dean’s point of view, this is a handy one-way bet. If Iraq goes well, it will no longer be in the headlines, and most swing voters will not care that he was wrong.

The case against Dean is therefore flawed. What of the case for him?

The Democrats need a strong voice of opposition, just as the Republicans have benefited from having one in government. As George Bush has frequently said, not everyone agrees with him, but everyone knows where he stands. The same could not be said of John Kerry, who may have cost himself the entire margin of his defeat in Ohio by saying “I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it”. That one remark became his defining moment.

Political parties need leaders who understand what leadership is. After a statement of principle, such as “Saddam Hussein is an evil dictator” or “taxes in America are too high”, George W Bush tends to say “and so”. After his statements of principle John Kerry tends to say “but”. After “and so” we hear what Bush intends to do about the problem. After ”but” Kerry tells us why he is not going to do much at all. Kerry was opposed to the Federal Marriage Amendment, but he didn’t vote against it. He supports gay rights, but he equivocates on gay marriage.

Whatever else you say about Howard Dean, he does not say “but”. He supports gay rights, and so, he signed Vermont’s civil union bill. He advocates fiscal restraint, and so, he balanced Vermont’s budget.

If the Democrats want to come to terms with the reason for their defeat they need to show they understand the reasons for it. In the post-9/11 world, the electorate is looking for politicians who say “and so”. Howard Dean is just such a politician.

Copyright © 02 February 2005

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