TCS Daily


We All Scream for Dean... But Maybe We Shouldn't

By James Pinkerton - February 11, 2005 12:00 AM

Republicans are smiling and high-fiving at the prospect of Howard Dean being elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee, which seems like a sure thing this Saturday. But as Oscar Wilde said, "When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers." In other words, Dean may not be temperamentally fit to be elected president of the United States, but he might well be fit to be an effective leader of the Democratic Party. And so Republicans might yet regret his ascendancy.

Long before Dean became a short-lived presidential phenom, the Cato Institute had him pegged. The libertarian think tank released its "report card" on the nation's 50 governors, giving the Vermont governor a "D":

        He is as pro-government intervention as any governor. He supports 
        state-funded universal health care, government-subsidized child care (even 
        for upper-income families), a higher minimum wage, liberal family leave 
        legislation, and taxpayer-financed campaigns. Dean has raised many 
        taxes over the past decade, including the gas tax, the sales tax, the 
        corporate income tax, the cigarette tax, and the property tax.

So the Club for Growth was onto something when it ran TV spots in January 2004, on the eve of the Democratic caucus, In that attack ad, a farmer riffed, "Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading" -- and before the man could finish his sentence, his wife jumped in and finished the sentence for him -- "Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs."

No wonder Dean lost the caucus. And then, of course, on the night of that defeat, came The Scream, which proved so scarily revealing about Dean that it immediately entered into political lore as an example of how not to deal with defeat. Indeed, Dean's scream even entered into the popular culture, at least eight remixes of which can be found on the web.

Now Republicans are cheering Dean on to DNC victory. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay quipped that since the Democrats have run out of ways to say "obstruction," they must find a leader who can scream that "o"-word. As The Dallas Morning News reported recently, "Republicans are giddy about the prospect of Mr. Dean becoming DNC chairman because many viewed him as too liberal for mainstream America." One such GOPer is Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, who called Dean "the gift that keeps on giving."

If Republicans are giddy, many Democrats are leery. Here's how Newsweek observed the Democratic establishment's reaction to the "Deaniac" movement on the day of George W. Bush's re-inauguration:

        In Georgetown that same evening, hordes of insiders partied at the stately 
        home of Mark Penn, the Clinton family pollster, where they gripped and grinned 
        with Bill and Hill, cheered each other up -- and fretted about Dean's 
        assault on party headquarters. "There was a ton of positive energy 
        at the house," a guest said later, "except for the fear and loathing 
        of Dean."

Yet we might examine in more detail what it is about Dean that these Area-Code-202-Democrats fear and loathe Are they worried that Dean will cause them to lose elections? If so, there's no need to worry -- because Democrats are already losing just fine, without any help from Dean. Today, the donkey party is at its lowest ebb since the 1920s.

So while Dean may or may not be the cure for the Democrats' woes, it has already been proven that more of the same -- "hordes of insiders" partying in stately Georgetown homes, nominating their neighbors, such as Al Gore and John Kerry -- is not the answer.

Indeed, much of the impetus for Dean's ascension is the widespread feeling that the Demstablishment's institutions, even more than its ideology, are what need shaking up.

A cover story in The Washington Monthly, bluntly entitled, "Fire the Consultants" has been rocketing around the Beltway and, more to point, outside the I-495 loop. The Monthly's Amy Sullivan decried the "clique of Washington consultants who, through their insider ties, continue to get rewarded with business even after losing continually." Naming names, she went after such party fixtures as Bob Shrum, Mark Mellman, and Joe Hansen.

But Sullivan went further in her critique:

        Conservatives have spent 30 years and billions of dollars on think tanks and 
        other organizations to develop a set of interlinked policies and language 
        that individual Republican candidates and campaigns can adopt in 
        plug-and-play fashion. Liberals are far behind in this message development 
        game. Indeed, most Democratic elected officials have been running 
        recently on warmed-up leftovers from the Clinton brain trust, ideas which 
        were once innovative but are now far from fresh. With little else to go on, 
        consultants -- many of whom came to prominence during the Clinton 
        years -- have clung to old ideas and strategies like security blankets. 
        "Democratic consultants are being asked to fill a role they're not suited to," 
        says Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democratic Network, "to come up 
        with ideas and electoral strategy in addition to media strategy."

What sort of ideas? Well, that's a hard question, and it might take decades to figure out what the new ideas might be. But one need only think about the technopolitical issues looming ahead to see that neither party is talking about them adequately. A few decades from now, if China has a larger economy than the US, if 25 countries have nuclear weapons, if Europe is half-Muslim, and if the Asian Tigers lead the world in such key fields as broadband, robotics, and stem cell -- as they intend to do -- then it will be hard to know what political and policy prescriptions the US might need.

So in the meantime, with the Democrats so far down, a little "creative destruction" would do the Dems some good.

If nothing else, Dean would be creatively destructive; the horrified reaction from the Georgetown Democrats is proof of that. And while it's a cliché by now to observe that he pioneered the use of Internet networking two years ago -- and no guarantee that he could make such techno-lightning strike twice -- it's obvious that he has an innate iconoclasm, even radicalism. And of course, he has brains and a basic technophilia that will make him alert to new possibilities. Oh, and he has fire, both personal and ideological. So whatever sacred cows the Democrats have to be slain, Chairman Dean will gleefully slay them.

Moroever, when Dean says, "I hate Republicans and everything they stand for," that's surely a sign that he doesn't aspire to be a big-time lobbyist when his DNC stint is over. Which is to say, as chairman he's less likely to go schmoozing in Georgetown than he is to spend his time stumping in the other Georgetowns; there are seven across the US, from Delaware to Texas.

Right now, Republicans are no doubt looking forward to duking it out with Dean over the next few years. But they should be mindful of one thing: the Vermonter says that he won't be on the presidential ballot in 2008. He might be fibbing, of course -- and once again, as the presidential nominee, he would surely be Dr. Doomed -- but if he is telling the truth about his future intentions, then the Republicans could end up punching a lot of air, as the Democrats find a nominee who "triangulates" between the liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. It's worked before.

But will Republicans be able to wrap the liberal-left Dean around the neck of, say, Hillary Rodham Clinton or Evan Bayh as either seeks a middle-ground path to the White House? That would be a perfectly sound strategy for the GOP to pursue, and maybe it would work. But maybe it wouldn't, if the electorate sees the national issue-mix as more important than the political personality-clash.

Republicans are on a roll right now, but a few thousand votes scattered around differently in a few states in the last two national elections would have made them two-time losers, not two-time winners. A stronger Democratic party might have delivered those needed extra ballots. And a Democratic party in which the energetic-outsider Deaniacs of '04 become savvy-insider Demo-niacs in '08 might prove formidable indeed.

Obviously the Republicans are stronger than the Democrats right now, and so the GOP has plenty of reason to look forward to '06 and '08. But at the same time, it's dangerous to dismiss Dean. Because, to update Oscar Wilde, those who say "Bring 'em on" have been known to regret such bravado.

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