Will Deaniacs pull a Nader on the Democratic Party?

Some of the insurgent's supporters say they're going to take their idealism and go home --- but most of them will probably get over their bitterness and support the nominee.


Michelle Goldberg
February 5, 2004 1:57AM (UTC)

On Jan. 30, three days after Howard Dean came in a disappointing second in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, posters on the late-night open thread on the Dean for America blog excoriated John Kerry. "At first, I was in the ABB [Anybody But Bush] category, but I refuse to be cowtowed [sic] by the corporate-controlled media and vote for a gutless democrat who rolled over and played dead for George Bush or one who helped draft the Patriot Act," wrote Sydney Platt, a 42-year-old from Houston. Another poster castigated her, but many more supported her sentiment. One wrote, "I have decided that perhaps America must lose everything to value something. That may be what it takes to actually get our country back if Dean goes down."

If this sounds familiar, it's because some of the rhetoric coming out of the most disillusioned quarters of the Dean camp recalls that of the Ralph Nader campaign. Among parts of the Dean movement these days, there's much railing at the corporate-dominated Democratic Party, plenty talk of rejecting the "lesser of two evils" approach to politics and abundant slandering of front-runner John Kerry as "Bush-lite." So as it grows increasingly likely that Dean won't be the Democratic nominee in 2004 -- and that Kerry will be -- some are wondering, and worrying, whether all the devoted legions of activists that Dean brought into the Democratic fold will stay in the party, spoil the race or just stay home. If Dean goes down, will one of the greatest grass-roots movements in Democratic history go with him -- a rerun of the Nader fiasco four years ago? Or will Dean supporters decide that beating Bush is more important than remaining true to their man and their principles and support the Democratic nominee, whoever he is?

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Most Dean supporters, like Dean himself, say they'll vote Democratic no matter what. "I certainly am [going to back the Democrat], and the vast majority of Dean supporters that I work with also will be doing that," says Linda Watson, a Dean volunteer who founded the Web site and mailing list Deaniacs.org. And progressives in general are uncommonly unified -- Eli Pariser, campaigns director of MoveOn.org, says most activists he knows have remained nonsectarian and will happily back any of the Democratic front-runners. "Clearly people are picking favorites in the primaries," he says. "But they tell us that whoever the candidate is, they're in for that fight, and that electing a new president trumps their interest in a particular candidate."

Pariser's comments are significant because the MoveOn and Dean phenomena are closely related. Still, a faction of the Dean movement seems ready to punish the party -- indeed, to punish the country -- for failing to heed Dean's message and repay their own ardent campaigning. Their anger is directed especially at Kerry, whom they blame for dashing their dreams. Given how close the election is likely to be, even a few thousand disillusioned Deaniacs could tip the election to George Bush, the man Dean grew famous for disparaging.

"It looks like the Democratic Party, they're just bullying us around by putting Kerry out there," says Platt, a Dean volunteer who says she's never been involved in politics before this campaign. "The press is courting him. They think they're going to win and I'm not going to let that happen. Kerry voted to let Bush have carte blanche [on Iraq] because he was too weak to stand up to him. There's no reason to support the man, after all the effort we put out ..."

But isn't four more years of Bush reason enough to support any Democrat? "Maybe in four years the Democratic Party will learn something," says Platt. "Maybe it takes another four years for it to hit rock bottom before they will wake up and smell the coffee." Platt is echoed by Nancy Fulton, a 39-year-old mother of three from Santa Monica, Calif., who says that rather than vote for Kerry, "I might be happier impeaching Bush if he took a second term."

For an outsider, there's something odd about this cavalier attitude toward the threat of another Bush term. After all, much of Dean's initial appeal lay in his frank denunciations of the president's right-wing extremism at a time when other Democrats insisted on treating Bush as a credible leader. Dean thrilled his followers by articulating the full ghastliness of Bush's agenda. How, then, can those followers believe that their anger at Kerry justifies risking more of the horrors that presumably brought them into the campaign in the first place?

B.J. Rudell thinks he understands. A former grass-roots campaign organizer for Bill Bradley in New Hampshire and Rhode Island during the 2000 primary race, Rudell says he was so consumed by the intra-party competition that he couldn't get behind Gore on Election Day. "Somewhat embarrassingly in hindsight, I ended up writing Bill Bradley in," he says.

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Why? "If all you care about is one person -- and you have to, if you work on a campaign -- the only way to do it is to be a true believer," says Rudell, who wrote a book about his campaign experiences, "Only In New Hampshire." "The moment these Dean people think, Well, Kerry would be an OK option, they've already lost. That will translate into the intensity or lack of intensity by which they organize."

Indeed, as his campaign hemorrhages support, Dean has tried to hold on to his base by painting Kerry, the man that the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action has given a lifetime rating of 93 percent, as a Republican. "It seems to be there's a little of George Bush in John Kerry," Dean told Salon recently. "George Bush says the most blatant things that are just plain false. No Child Left Behind leaves every child left behind -- something that Senator Kerry also voted for. How many rationales has George Bush given us for the Iraq war? Well, how many rationales has John Kerry given us for the Iraq war (which he also supported)? So I'm beginning to see a pattern. Maybe they shared a little more than just brotherhood at Skull and Bones, I don't know. I think that is not the kind of person the Democratic Party is going to win with. If you have a choice between Bush and Bush Lite why not go for Bush?" This message -- that Kerry's barely better than Bush -- is one that some of Dean's followers may be taking seriously, perhaps more than Dean intends.

More than that, though, Kerry's ascendancy robs Dean's followers of the sense of power their candidate offered. With enough hard work, they thought, citizens could seize the king-making power of the political elite. "Look at Perot, look at McCain, now we're doing Dean," says Fulton. "As a country, we've been trying repeatedly to say, look, we want an old-fashioned democracy where these guys work for us. Don't tell us what we think. Listen to what we think!"

Followers like Fulton thought they were close to regaining this prelapsarian democracy, only to have it snatched away.

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"When you're out there 15 hours a day, seven days a week, trying to find supporters, and when your opponent says anything or does anything to knock your candidate down, you take it personally," Rudell says. "What the Dean people are going through right now is that phase of denial. They really believe that their candidate can win. When you come to the realization that you may not win because of the front-runner, because of Kerry or whoever, you start to feel somewhat betrayed. You don't want all your work to have been for naught. You feel there's nothing that your opponent, in this case John Kerry, has done to earn your vote."

One reason there's such a sense of betrayal in the Dean movement is that they don't feel defeated, they feel robbed. For some of the movement people who've given their whole souls to Dean over the last year, their campaign didn't lose the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries. Iowa and New Hampshire were stolen from them. And the person who stole them was John Kerry.

"We worked so hard all summer," says a 30-year-old Dean volunteer named Nicole who's traveled with the campaign to Iowa and New Hampshire. "We worked so hard, and to come in and see what Kerry did ... to have someone come in and trample on all our hard work," she trails off. She seems to see the injustice as self-evident.

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Dressed in black, her curly hair pulled back, Nicole was working the room at a crowded Monday night voter registration party at Manhattan's Pioneer Bar. Representatives of other campaigns were on hand, as was Pariser from MoveOn, and the mood was one of cheerful anti-Bush Democratic solidarity. Nicole, though, says that if Kerry gets the nomination, it will be "a travesty." And though she'd "probably" vote for him in the general election, she also says, "I tend to see Kerry vs. Bush as two of the same evils."

Nicole's fury at Kerry was spurred in part by the feverish rumors swirling around the Dean camp that Kerry only beat their candidate by using dirty tricks.

Much of the campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire did get ugly -- ABC News' Jake Tapper interviewed Iowans who'd been called by Kerry volunteers who disparaged Dean. Yet Nicole is convinced that Kerry's campaign committed far worse outrages. She says that members of the Kerry campaign called voters and asked, "How would you feel if you knew Howard Dean was an abortionist?" and "Do you think Howard Dean is a Christian? Do you know his wife is a Jew?"

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Nicole doesn't have any evidence that these alleged calls came from the Kerry campaign, but says, "I have my hunches."

The Kerry campaign dismisses the accusations. "They put out a lot of untrue, unsubstantiated allegations about dirty tricks when it became clear that Howard Dean was not earning the confidence of New Hampshire voters," says Mark Kornblau, Kerry's New Hampshire spokesman. "They're ludicrous. There's not one shred of evidence."

For now, though, at least some Deaniacs can't be convinced that their guy lost on his own merits. Instead, they see collusion between the corporate media and the corporate-sponsored Democratic Party. "The last few weeks have been some of the biggest disappointments I've had," says Platt, her voice nearly cracking. "It would be one thing if Dean was being fairly treated in the press and we just weren't getting the numbers because the support wasn't there, but I don't believe that. I believe it's been manipulated. People who really want change, who want to see it happen, don't know how to make it happen with so much stacked against us."

But not all Dean supporters share this despair. Some believe that they've already succeeded in creating political change, and even the primaries have not disappointed them. "I'm not disillusioned at all," says Omar Jabara, a 37-old volunteer from Denver. A former press secretary for former Rep. Cynthia McKinney, Jabara moved into the private sector a few years ago and has been only tangentially involved in politics since. Howard Dean got him active again.

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"Dean's impact on the Democratic Party has been massive," he says. "The number of new people he's brought in, how he's employed these really new techniques. Some people will drop out, but I think for the vast majority, politics is a very addictive endeavor. Once you get involved in politics, it's very difficult to extract yourself. It's like the genie's out of the bottle." Jabara says he will vote for whomever the Democratic nominee is.

Ron Rapoport, a professor of government at the College of William and Mary, says his research supports the idea that many Dean supporters will go on to become energized party activists like Jabara. "Maverick candidacies recruit new constituencies for the party," he says. "The role of a maverick candidate is to enlarge the party."

Rapoport is collaborating with Walter Stone, a professor at the University of California at Davis, on a book about insurgent candidacies and party change. As part of their research, they tracked the political involvement of people introduced to politics through both third-party campaigns and intra-party insurgencies.

"We found with supporters of Ross Perot, the more active they were for Ross Perot, the more active they become for the Republican Party," he says. "Their total activity level increased in the major parties after they worked for Perot. In 1988, with people who supported [Republican primary challenger] Pat Robertson, the more active they were for Pat Robertson, the more active they became for Bush. For virtually every candidate, the more active someone is for that maverick candidate, the more active they will be for the eventual nominee. Let's say Kerry's the nominee. Someone who does a lot for Dean will not do as much for Kerry as someone who is very active for Kerry, but someone who is very active for Dean will do more for Kerry than someone who is only a little active for Dean. Even if you control for people's attitudes, you still find this effect of carry-over from nomination activity to general election activity."

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Watson, the founder of Deaniacs.org, has seen this firsthand. A Dean volunteer, she wanted to do everything she could to help defeat Bush, so she began volunteering for her local Democratic Party. "I started doing their Web site, helping them organizing precincts," she says. "I was the volunteer they couldn't get rid of." Finally, they hired her. She's now executive director of the Wake County Democratic Party, a job she makes sure to keep separate from her Dean activities.

Watson says she's not the only activist who's found a place in the party through her involvement with the primary race. "People from the Kucinich campaign and the Clark campaign, they're beating down the door of the county party, asking, How can we organize precincts? How can we get out the vote? How can we get rid of George Bush?' All the ways you've seen Dean people volunteering, that same energy and strength is coming into the party as a whole."

It's difficult to judge how long the anger and sense of betrayal many Dean supporters are expressing now will last. In his speech after Tuesday's primaries, in which he was only competitive in New Mexico, Dean said that he would support whomever the Democratic nominee is -- although, as a still-battling candidate, he also said that none of the others would push for institutional change like he would, and again blasted Kerry for taking money from special interests. When and if Dean drops out, his endorsement will put pressure on his supporters to be pragmatic.

In the end, says Rudell, many of the currently alienated Deaniacs will come into the fold, provided the rest of the party is sufficiently welcoming. "The Democrats need to be patient with whoever loses and let them come in when they're ready," he says. In 2000, "I got so much pressure from Democrats to support Gore, it pushed me away further. They have to decide for themselves."

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In an early sign that the Democratic establishment has realized they can't afford to make the same mistake they did in 2000 and alienate the party's grass roots, Democratic party chair Terry McAuliffe reached out to the "Blog Community" in an open letter published on the political blog Daily Kos. "Your grassroots activism will be the key to our victory in 2004. And the leadership of Kos and others like yourselves in the blogosphere has truly transformed our Party. I thank you all for helping make our Party better, stronger and more responsive to grassroots America," McAuliffe, who has exchanged some sharp elbows with the Dean campaign, wrote. Kos passed the peace pipe back: "There is obviously a great deal of hostility toward the national party around these parts, much of it justified. But the party is genuinely working to retool itself, and while not perfect (who is?), they are making stead (sic) progress."

Some Kos posters agreed. Under the title "Time to Close Ranks," one person posting under the name "Windowdog" wrote, "I'd prefer someone other than Kerry, but ABB, dear god please ABB." Another Kos visitor, Joel Caris, agreed, saying, "We pushed Kerry to the left on a lot of those issues, and that's where we have to stay strong and keep the pressure on him ... Kerry is by far my least favorite of the major candidates. However, there's no way in hell that I agree Kerry is as bad as Bush ... We're not gonna get a full recovery under him, but we'll be dead under Bush. Give me Kerry any day."

But others were less welcoming. "Where was this message when Dean was doing well?" asked a dubious Walter B. And Kimberly Stone wrote, "In some ways, a Kerry White House would be a bigger disappointment than a Bush White House. Bush we have no expectations for. Kerry would just break our hearts. All I know is that we must do better for a nominee and [sic] than an invetebrate scumsucker whose moral dipstick is about two drops short of bone dry. [X-Files quote]"

But Rudell thinks that most of even the most bitter Dean supporters will get past their anger. "Right now they're blinded by their own emotional investment," he says. "It takes time to release from that investment and move on to the next investment, which is the party at large."

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Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

MORE FROM Michelle Goldberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Democratic Party Howard Dean John F. Kerry, D-mass.

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