Howard Dean takes back the scream

Published July 28, 2004 2:16AM (EDT)

Howard Dean let loose with a loud, lusty scream again Tuesday afternoon at the Take Back America conference, and the adoring lefty crowd roared back. You probably won't see that Howard Dean --red-faced, fiery, partisan -- on television tonight. He's learned how to play to the cameras. But Dean showed Tuesday that he's also learned how to play an invaluable role for the Democrats: the liaison to their restive, progressive flank, working to keep the left focused on making a difference, not merely acting self-righteous, and the party focused on the need to maintain and respect its left-liberal base.

Dean actually warmed up for his primetime convention closeup with not one but two speeches to Take Back America. Cops blocked hundreds of Deaniacs from entering the over-capacity Royal Sonesta Hotel Tuesday afternoon, after some had waited up to three hours to get in. But when Dean and the organizers heard about the snafu, the former Vermont governor addressed those who'd been kept out from a patio behind the hotel. Campaign for America's Future director Bob Borosage introduced Dean a second time, and apologized for not having a big enough space for everyone. "Blame me," Borosage said. "I'm amazed by your energy and awed by your numbers."

Both crowds were awed by Dean, who's still turning out hundreds of swooning supporters, most of them younger than the average convention delegate. His indoor speech was interrupted by multiple standing ovations plus lots of whoops and screams, even tears. "This is not a roomful of Democratic party regulars," Dean opened, and the crowd roared its agreement. So he introduced them to Will Rogers' standard party punchline, "I'm not a member of any organized political party, I'm a Democrat." But Dean didn't play it for laughs. "Everybody always laughs at that, but we'll laugh ourselves right out of existence," he warned, if Democrats and progressives don't do the serious work of organizing a base.

"It's not enough to vote, I want you to run for office," he told the crowd. "If you can't run for office, if you're a single mother, give three hours a week to someone else's campaign. Cough up five, 10, 25 dollars." He stopped short of former campaign manager Joe Trippi's call for John Kerry to abandon the public financing system and rely on a small-donor Internet base, but he did say "the best campaign finance reform is raising money from small donors. That's how we take this country back."

The Take Back America conference was a good measure of how much more electorally and organizationally savvy the left has gotten over the last decade. Borosage's group had produced a dark blue backdrop for the speakers, much like the kind George W. Bush speaks in front of, with its own slogans -- "Accountable corporations" "Kitchen Table Economics" "New Rules for a Global Economy" -- in white letters. In his second speech, Dean whipped the crowd into a cheering frenzy by noting that "Bill Clinton was the only guy to balance the budget. If it takes a liberal to balance the budget, well then we need a liberal in the White House, because you can't trust this government with your money." And it was hard not to marvel at this lefty crowd cheering over a balanced budget.

But Dean also respected the group's desire to build its own infrastructure, not merely become foot soldiers for the Kerry-Edwards ticket. He lauded both men, and asked the crowd to "put your heart and soul into electing them," but he also insisted they do more than work for the top of the ticket. "We have to undo 20 years of neglecting the Democratic party infrastructure," he said. His campaign-spinoff group, Democracy for America, plans to endorse 800 candidates around the country, in races ranging from Congress to library trustee.

Finally, Dean made a case for not just working in swing states but nationwide, in so-called red states, even in the south. "More than 105,000 children in South Carolina have no health insurance," he noted. "Sooner or later they're going to get tired of voting based on guns, God and gays and start voting on education and health care." He closed with an echo of the now-famous speech that led to the scream: "We will go to Mississippi and Idaho and Utah and Alabama," he began, as the crowd began to roar back. He kept on naming more red states, I think, but you couldn't hear the rest of them over all the cheers.

By Joan Walsh

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