Life of the party?

The conservative wing of the Democratic Party calls him another McGovern -- but Howard Dean might be more in touch with today's electorate than his critics.

Published July 25, 2003 10:56PM (EDT)

George McGovern may be a gravel-voiced 80-year-old summering in the Rockies, but the retired South Dakota senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee can still see a few things about the upcoming battle for the 2004 Democratic crown.

The first is that the campaign of Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, is "not going anywhere." The second is that Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., is unlikely to "excite many of the kind of people who attend caucuses or vote in primaries." The third is that Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., "seemed to be promising early" but has since faded off the scene.

But the most important thing McGovern can see about the upcoming presidential contest of 2004 is that it is not taking place in 1972, and that he is not running in it. Certainly, McGovern can see some resemblance between himself and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. They're both from sparsely populated, rural states. They both entered their respective races early, and became heavily reliant on volunteers and grass-roots mobilizing. That aside, though, "I think it's difficult to draw a close comparison," says McGovern.

"There's no transcendent issue now that he's identified with," says McGovern, who met Dean and some of the other Democratic presidential aspirants at a May conference on rural issues in Lake Placid, N.Y. "There's no Vietnam War, no Great Depression ... I don't see any single issue that has mobilized especially the young people and women like 1972 did. There was something about the Vietnam involvement that did create a divide in the Democratic Party probably surpassed only by the period of the Civil War, which had a shattering impact on the Democratic coalition. I don't think there's anything quite as divisive culturally or politically today.

"Another difference," continues McGovern somewhat wistfully, "is that he has a large sum of money in the race more than a year ahead of the election and I was never but one step ahead of the bill collectors ... I never had the millions that he has."

There are plenty of other differences, too -- such as the rise of the Internet and a front-loaded primary schedule next year that could provide a clear winner as early as March 3, whereas McGovern's state-by-state slog for the nomination lasted through and then into a convention so divisive that California's delegation was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court and four of McGovern's vice-presidential picks turned him down publicly before he finally won over former Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver.

But to hear Howard Dean's critics in the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, he is nothing less than the second coming of McGovern, doomed to lead the party into the same electoral inferno if he wins its nomination next year. According to Al From, CEO and founder of the center-right Democratic Leadership Council, and Bruce Reed, DLC president and President Bill Clinton's former domestic policy guru, Dean must be stopped before he steers the party back to the McGovern era of bell-bottoms and muttonchops -- and back to political oblivion.

"I would never wish the '70s on anybody," Reed wrote in a June 30 column in the DLC's Blueprint magazine. And yet for the past two-and-half months, he's done his level best to drag the debate about how to beat Bush in 2004 all the way back to 1972, the year his colleague and Progressive Policy Institute head Will Marshall recalled, in a sentimental Blueprint story, that he'd "wound up casting my first presidential ballot, with scant enthusiasm, for McGovern," and the same year From was directing a Senate subcommittee headed by losing Democratic presidential aspirant Ed Muskie, D-Maine. The history lessons started with a May 15 broadside by From and Reed, "The Real Soul of the Democratic Party," that called out Dean by name. "What activists like Dean call the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party is an aberration: the McGovern-Mondale wing, defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home," they wrote. "That's the wing that lost 49 states in two elections, and transformed Democrats from a strong national party into a much weaker regional one."

Soon a full-scale media barrage against creeping Deanism was launched, with From-Reed Op-Eds in the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, and another Dean takedown by Lawrence Kaplan, the New Republic's neoconservative senior editor. Kaplan was joined by his New Republic colleague Jonathan Chait, who offered a novel twist on the anti-Dean theme, comparing him not to McGovern, but to another notorious loser, former Republican presidential aspirant Steve Forbes.

Confronted with these comparisons, Dean for America campaign manager Joe Trippi just sighs. "How come it's always us who's gotta be somebody else?" he asks. "The truth is that our name is Howard Dean. Howard Dean is Howard Dean. He's not anybody else, and that's why people support him."

So far, From and Reed's warnings to the Democratic Party, to the extent that they've reached the rank and file at all, appear to have had no impact on Dean's campaign, which has surged in fundraising, volunteer support and national and state polls. If anything, the DLC's attacks have increased support for the Dean campaign, which sees its fundraising spike each time it comes under attack from the Washington insiders, says Trippi. That's because rather than running as McGovern, Dean seems to be running according to the campaign playbook outlined by none other than From and Reed in their very smart Feb. 11 memo, "What It Takes to Win the White House."

"Your most formidable opponent," the duo wrote, "isn't President Bush or your fellow contestants for the nomination. Your real enemy is the ghost of Democrats past.

"[P]arty perceptions are a wonderful foil for an insurgent candidate looking to define himself," they continued, urging the candidates to refuse "to be subtle about defying the Democratic stereotype." Added Bernard L. Schwartz and Daniel Yankelovich in the same issue of Blueprint magazine: "The worst mistake Democrats can make is to continue to work within a Republican framework. This is how Democrats were snookered in the 2002 election."

What From and Reed did not realize is that their DLC would become the Democratic ghost against which an insurgent Dean would run.

Rather than running against the Democratic Party of 1972, Dean is running against the DLC-dominated (in image, if not in fact) Democratic Party that lost the House in 1994, the White House in 2000, and the Senate in 2000 and again in 2002. This, too, is just as From and Reed advised, though they seem to have forgotten that.

"The real front-runner, fresh off its triumph in the midterms, is the Democratic Party's losing image," they wrote in February. "If you want to win the presidency in 2004, you have to redefine the Democratic Party in 2003. By all means, capture your party's imagination -- but do it on your terms, not theirs."

That is exactly what Dean is doing -- by directly challenging the party's support for the president's war in Iraq, the USA PATRIOT Act, and such losing or poorly funded pieces of legislation as the Patient's Bill of Rights and the No Child Left Behind Act. "Don't look for the false unity that comes from shying away from every controversial issue, and reject the consultant consensus that stacking constituency upon constituency will add up to a majority," wrote From and Reed. "Now more than ever, the one reason to seek the presidency, and the only way to win it, is to unite people behind a cause that is larger than your candidacy."

And so Dean's presidential announcement speech on June 23 reached for the broadest themes possible: "This campaign is about more than issue differences on health care or tax policy, national security, jobs, the environment, our economy ... It's about who we are as Americans," Dean told the 30,000 people across the country who followed his speech. "I ask all Americans, regardless of party, to meet with me across the nation -- to come together in common cause to forge a new American century. Help us in this quest to return greatness and return high moral purpose to the United States of America."

Now that Dean is capturing the party's imagination on his own terms, the DLC is crying foul. And From and Reed are using every available opportunity to whack the former governor of Vermont. By their statements over the past two months, From and Reed have shown that the few years their group has spent in the electoral wilderness since the Clinton administration have intensified a process that had already begun in the late '90s: turning the DLC into just another interest group clamoring to have its agenda considered uppermost and its favorite sons promoted, irrespective of any concerns about winning elections.

The group is losing sight of the larger narrative, and assisting its real opposition by attacking Dean. Already, the McGovern-peacenik-Democratic-weakness charge is spreading from DLC articles into the mouths of Republican critics, except the DLC charge is creating a blowback that will damage all Democrats -- including those who voted for the president's war resolution -- on matters of foreign policy. "The Dems are still the party of George McGovern, and for them it's still 1968," wrote Jed Babbin, deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration on National Review Online July 23, in the first of what will no doubt be many such articles to come. But Babbin wasn't talking about Dean, whom he didn't even mention, or the pre-war debate over Iraq. No, what inspired this broadside was the quest all nine Democratic candidates share: to get to the bottom of the Niger-uranium claim in Bush's State of the Union speech. Wrote Babbin: "The McGoverniks and their pals in the press have been working feverishly to turn the 'Niger uranium' sentence in the State of the Union address into the same sort of fraud they attribute to the reports that led Congress to pass the Tonkin Gulf resolution."

Then there's the DLC's backing of Joe Lieberman. While there's something admirably loyal about the group sticking with an old friend and ally, it also shows an apparent resistance to an honest assessment of the facts on the ground. While spending over $4 million in the first half of this year, the Lieberman campaign has watched its candidate -- leading with 21 to 27 percent of the Democratic vote in January, depending on the poll -- drop to between 16 and 21 percent. Lieberman began the year with every possible advantage in terms of name recognition and institutional support -- advantages that Dean lacked -- and yet, today, Democratic and Republican strategists alike say they find it extremely difficult to see a way clear to the nomination for Lieberman. The stiffness of the competition, the nature of the primary electorate, and the primary calendar all work against him. Meanwhile, some seasoned political observers now believe Dean has a shot at winning not just New Hampshire, but Iowa -- a combination no non-incumbent Democratic candidate has won since 1976.

Likewise, the John Edwards campaign -- which Reed has advised on education and economic policy -- has spent $3.8 million and watched its national standing decline from 12 or 14 percent in January, depending on the poll, to 6 or 4 percent. Neither campaign is positioned to win Iowa or New Hampshire, and Edwards remains in the single digits even in South Carolina, where he was born.

In contrast, Dean has spent $3.99 million and gone from 3-4 percent to 10-12 percent in national polls, and from nowhere to second or tied for first, depending on the poll, in New Hampshire and Iowa. And now comes news that California, too, is trending his way.

Though it is still early in the Democratic contest, by any measure it's already clear that either the DLC candidates are campaigning less effectively than the ex-governor of Vermont, or that their messages simply do not have the same appeal as Dean's. Notes McGovern: "I think some of the people who are so concerned about where they are going to be positioned in November may lose sight of the fact that you won't win in November if you can't even get through March."

The only serious threat to Dean's campaign comes from Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who has spent $4.88 million to basically stay in place in New Hampshire and move up a bit in Iowa over the past six months. Dean critics portray Kerry as a less exciting, but more electable candidate. "The Democrats would be much better off with a blander, more faceless, less exciting candidate -- Kerry, Gephardt or even Lieberman (perhaps with Edwards, Florida Sen. Bob Graham, or retired Gen. Wesley Clark as running mate) -- than they would be with a fiery, controversial Dean," wrote John Judis in Salon. This analysis is especially unfair to Kerry. Kerry is not the leader in New Hampshire because he is the bland, unexciting, unobjectionable party favorite. Kerry is leading because he is running an aggressive, smart campaign that was first out of the gate in January with a strong operation, has spent wisely, and has expanded ahead of the rest of the pack into multiple states. Kerry has proven himself a surprisingly personable and adept one-on-one campaigner, and his campaign has shown flexibility in responding to the challenge Dean has posed. Meanwhile Gephardt has tried to ratchet up his rhetoric to compete with Kerry and Dean and to avoid the fate that befell him in 1988, when he learned that "bland and tepid won't cut it," according to Jim VandeHei of the Washington Post.

Worth noting too is that Dean, as abrasive as he is, manages to get away with things no other candidate can. If you prick a straw man, does he not bleed? Well, no. As long ago as 1995, the Vermont press found itself confounded by "Dean's Teflon characteristics." The governor was able to alienate virtually the entire state at one point or another and yet win reelection four times. In May, critics said he wasn't being held to the same standards as the other candidates. Since then, he has been. And he's survived a poor debate performance in South Carolina, the "mean Dean" meme, public spats with Kerry and Graham, apologizing for those spats, his son's arrest, a controversial "Meet the Press" appearance, ongoing comparisons to McGovern, and a travel schedule that has him out on the road 26 days out of 30. Instead of being hindered by any of the criticisms or stresses he faces, though, Dean has kept going and continued to draw new supporters, increase fundraising, and get his message out. But like all Teflon people -- such George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan -- he drives his critics crazy.

The Dean campaign may yet stall out of its own accord -- if, for example, it mistakes the candidate's ability to maneuver past problems for the absence of any need to fix them, or if, as time passes, his supporters no longer find his bluntness as refreshing, or if, come January, they find his policy proposals wanting. And meanwhile, the DLC attacks of this spring and summer will work their evil magic, you may be certain. They will weaken the eventual Democratic nominee -- whether it is Dean, Kerry, Gephardt, Edwards or some other candidate  and increase the chances that the nominee will lose to Bush.

But in the end, victory might well go to the boldest candidate, despite the carping of the cautious and centrist. "Americans don't vote for someone who has positioned himself in the center," says Curtis Gans, former director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "They vote for a human being who they trust to help them solve their problems."

By Garance Franke-Ruta

Garance Franke-Ruta is a senior editor at the American Prospect.

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2004 Elections Howard Dean