When Howard Dean’s presidential campaign floundered in 2004, many thought his days as a major player in politics were over. Four years later, Dean is credited for having rejuvenated not only his own political reputation, but also for contributing to the Democrats recent takeover of Washington.
It was more than four years ago that Howard Dean put an exclamation point of his sinking presidential campaign, with his now infamous “scream speech” after the New Hampshire primary in 2004. The speech featured a dejected Dean, coming off of a crippling second-place finish, screaming something along the lines of “yeeaargh” as he listed off a large chunk of the remaining states in the union that he was hoping to win.
Contrary to the ruminations of many pundits, the scream is not what did Dean in. The New Hampshire primary effectively ended his hopes for the nomination. Nonetheless, it was this speech that came to define Dean and his campaign.
But now, in the wake of an historic election which saw President-elect Barack Obama pull out a blowout win that included victories in traditionally red states, Howard Dean seems to have found redemption -amongst his party, its supporters and, in some instances, the media.
Earlier this week, as expected, Dean stepped down from his post as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. As speculation abounds over Dean’s future and his prospects for a cabinet level position in an Obama administration, it is worth looking into his role in this presidential election and in the Democratic Party’s campaign apparatus. Dean, by many accounts, deserves credit for two major elements of the Obama campaign and the Democratic domination of Congress: the implementation of the 50-state-strategy and his role in the growth of the “Netroots” which has grown into a crucial fundraising tool for the party establishment.
The road to the chairmanship
When Dean took the chairman job in 2005 it was viewed as a fairly benign post that provided little opportunities for its holder to shape the direction of the Democratic Party in any
meaningful way. The Party was coming off an embarrassing presidential loss to President Bush, after a lackluster campaign led by John Kerry that failed to take advantage of growing anti-war sentiment that had been fostering among the country, and would eventually catapult the Democrats into power in the legislative branch during the 2006 mid-term elections.
Dean had previously attempted to harness this energy into his presidential campaign, and for a while was quite successful. Weeks before the New Hampshire primary, Dean was leading in the polls. But, in the days before the primary, his stock started plummeting dramatically. Democrats feared Dean would be unelectable in the general election and members of the democratic establishment were resistant to Dean and went on the attack.
While Dean’s liberalism was often overstated (he is actually a fiscal conservative and a staunch drug warrior), he and his supporters represented something of a shift from the centrist, pro-business wing of the party that had dominated it for much of the 1990s and early 2000s.
Channeling the words of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, Dean would argue that he was “from the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.”
But this line of thought did not sit well with the party establishment, the most powerful of whom (Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman etc …) had aligned themselves with the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a group which was started in 1984 in reaction to Ronald Reagan’s blowout win over George McGovern in the 1984 presidential election. The basic goal of the DLC was to move the party to the right, especially on matters of economics and foreign policy, under the theory that this was the only way to curb Republican dominance of the federal government.
The DLC sharply attacked Dean, saying he was from “The McGovern-Mondale wing” of the Party, defined “principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest group liberalism at home.”
In July of that year, Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, then- chairman of the DLC, said “The [Bush] Administration is being run by the far-right. The Democratic Party is in danger of being taken over by the far left.” They also joked about Dean’s web site following by asking: “Will he be the next dot com bust?”