Dr. Dean's new Rx

Howard Dean launches a new organization, Democracy for America. His first goal: Defeat Bush by taking on Nader.

By Lisa Chamberlain
Published March 24, 2004 12:04AM (EST)

Howard Dean ended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president nearly a month ago, but you might not know it from his ability to create new controversies. Last week, Dean offered up a blunt assessment of al-Qaida's terrorist attack in Madrid: "The president was the one who dragged our troops to Iraq, which apparently has been a factor in the death of 200 Spaniards over the weekend." It was yet another brush fire ignited by Dean the Lightening Rod. This time it was singeing Sen. John Kerry, on whose behalf he was speaking, and Kerry had to douse it. Just like old times, Dean clarified his earlier remark: "Let me be clear, there is no justification for terrorism. Today I was simply repeating what those who have claimed responsibility for the bombings in Spain said was the reason they carried out that despicable act." Then, just as Dean managed to do during the campaign, he followed up the media blaze he had set by changing the subject.

Making his third and final speech announcing Democracy for America, which transforms his campaign into an advocacy organization, Dean packed the house and an overflow room in New York City last Friday. It was the first time Dean returned to New York since calling it quits, and he was greeted with a raucous standing ovation. "If you keep that up, I might just get back in the race," he remarked, which was followed by more applause. He flashed his trademark impish grin then wagged his finger at would-be speculators: "I'm kidding. That was a joke."

Dean went on to deliver a modified version of his stump speech, failing to mention the presumptive Democratic nominee by name or saying much about his new organization until two-thirds of the way through. He stated repeatedly that "we're going to take back the White House," and "send George Bush back to Crawford, Texas." Temporarily neutered after his infamous "scream," Dean, free at last, didn't hesitate to offer up plenty of red meat: "Never again will the Democratic Party lie down in fear of the right wing of the Republican Party!"

Dean's meteoric rise and fall will be debated long after the election is over. But one thing his supporters and critics alike acknowledge is the impact he's had so far on the Democratic Party, a role that his new organization is designed to perpetuate. Democracy for America will use the innovative Internet tools devised during the campaign to raise small donations, encourage progressive candidates to run at the local level, and bring new voters into the fold who will keep the Democratic Party on track.

"Dean's central message was to change the party and change America," says Donna Brazile, a political analyst and Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000. "This new vehicle will allow Dean to meet both objectives. Although the Washington establishment was uncomfortable with candidate Dean, they should embrace cheerleader Dean in this new initiative to engage voters."

But make no mistake: If Dean is able to convert his campaign into a powerful advocacy organization that provides him with a platform, don't expect him to jump around on the sidelines and yell cheers at the players on the field. Of course, Dean is playing nice now because his primary objective is to get rid of Bush, but he's also comfortable being something of a man without a country. He's had to learn the hard way that in order to change the party from within, he needs to be on the inside.

"Dean became an outsider because he dared to say the emperor has no clothes," says Steve Cobble, a progressive political strategist who worked on Nader's campaign in 2000 and is now a consultant to Rep. Dennis Kucinich. "After 10 years as a moderate governor of Vermont, Dean certainly didn't think of himself as an outsider. He got pushed out. But he has a very strong following now, and they ran a brilliantly innovative campaign in many ways. When you have that set of circumstances, it would be foolish not to carve out a piece of the Democratic landscape. But the liberal wing of the party should be careful to think he's their new leader, because he's made it clear from the beginning he's not a liberal. And frankly, I respect that."

To get himself back in the game, Dean has focused his organization on expanding the pool of small donors and encouraging grassroots organizing. If he can speak to people as an activist the way he did as a candidate -- and help defeat George Bush -- Dean just might gain credibility and a constituency.

"Republicans have done a better job than we have in terms of marshaling their resources and using grassroots support in an effective manner," says Paul Maslin, Dean's campaign pollster. "It's not beyond the pale to say that Dean, who broke all records, could motivate the base and play a substantial role. But wherever [this new organization] leads, the whole point is, he revitalized the party."

Of course, not everyone's convinced Dean will succeed in doing much more than he's already demonstrated, raise money and agitate but not necessarily get nominated.

"It's easy to confuse an information network with an organization," says Marshall Ganz, a long-time organizer and lecturer in public policy at Harvard University and an advisor to the Dean campaign. "If the approach is the same as it was during the campaign, it'll be just another MoveOn, which has already been done. The Internet was a lot more effective at raising money than it was at delivering votes. In terms of helping people get elected, I'll believe it when I see it. The amount of money they raised and squandered is phenomenal. Who's going to say, Come teach me how to do that?"

But even Ganz, who laments the failure of the Dean campaign to translate incredible energy into an effective organization, believes Dean did the Democratic Party a favor. Much like a Coast Guard cutter, he has broken up the ice so another, statelier ship could sail through. To bring that ship into safe harbor, Dean has made it clear he's as committed as ever to defeating George Bush first.

To that end, according to a well-placed source close to Dean, Kerry and Dean have discussed Dean's projected role in challenging Ralph Nader, whose fourth run for president has Democrats, Independents and even some Greens apoplectic. Dean has been careful to praise Nader's accomplishments before urging people not to be seduced by a quixotic campaign. This is a tactical move to avoid driving people into Nader's arms by being too combative. But should Nader manage to get on the ballot in some key states and threaten to throw them to Bush, expect the gloves to come off.

Meanwhile -- with the exception of Dennis Kucinich, the last of the Mohicans who wasn't invited because he hasn't dropped out of the race yet -- Howard Dean will join all the former Democratic candidates at a unity meeting on Thursday in Washington, D.C., where he will officially endorse John Kerry for president.

Lisa Chamberlain

Lisa Chamberlain is a writer and editor in New York City.

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2004 Elections Howard Dean John F. Kerry