Howard Dean was supposed to be finished back in January 2004, when his once-overpowering presidential campaign collapsed in the cornfields of Iowa – and when he let out a scream that made him as much laughingstock as loser.
Sure, the conventional wisdom went, he’d still have a loud voice in the national political dialogue. Even in defeat, Dean retained the passionate loyalty of much of the Democratic grass roots, the activists who’d grown irate with the timidity the acquiescence of their party’s Washington establishment to so much of the Bush agenda. But, as the ’04 primary results showed, the grass roots alone wasn’t enough to beat the establishment. Going forward, Dean would be the voice of a faction of his party – never a true leader.
That he secured the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee in early 2005 really didn’t change this thinking. He would serve as the party’s titular leader, a figurehead to mollify the restive activists and, perhaps, to wean a few more bucks out of them. But the real power – the control over message and money – would reside elsewhere. Dean could talk all he wanted about his vision of a “50-state strategy,” but there was no way that Rahm Emanuel and all the other guys who knew how to actually win elections would ever let him throw real money at that pipe dream.
It’s kind of funny where things have ended up.
In two months, Democrats will convene in Denver and nominate for president a candidate who opposed the Iraq war from the very beginning – the very position that made Dean such a radical in 2004. In 2008, though, that prescient war opposition may have been the single biggest factor in Barack Obama’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton – whose own vote to authorize the war, a vote that supposedly made John Kerry a safer choice than Dean in ’04, undermined her campaign from the outset.
The second biggest factor in Obama’s triumph was his stunningly superior financial position, which freed him to organize and compete in every state of every size, while the Clinton operation wrote off entire states. And how did Obama raise all of this cash? By perfecting the model that Dean pioneered in 2003, when his grass-roots army used the Internet to pour hundreds of thousands of small-dollar contributions into his coffers, allowing the little-known former governor of Vermont to outraise Kerry and John Edwards and their big-dollar bundlers.
Supposedly, Dean’s experience in 2004 had demonstrated that the old limits to insurgent national candidacies still applied in the Web age. Despite the buzz Dean had generated, it was Kerry, with his safe, poll-tested message and support from much of the party’s institutional forces, who had won – and, really, it hadn’t even been that close. (Dean’s only primary win in ’04 came in Vermont, after he had dropped out.)
But four years later, another insurgent has come along and – against a woman who was supposed to harness her deep establishment ties to assemble the most fearsome national political machine ever seen – essentially employed an improved version of the Dean model. And he’s won with it.
And then there’s that whole 50-state pipe dream. As a candidate in 2003-’04, Dean promised over and over to mount a meaningful fall campaign in every state – money, field workers and personal appearances invested in states the party typically ceded to the G.O.P. without even trying. To prove his point, he even went ahead in the summer of 2003 and ran television ads in Texas.
Dean’s contention was that expanding the map in general elections would create surprising new targets for the party’s presidential candidate, just as it would force the Republicans to expend resources in states they’d grown accustomed to Democrats writing off. He also proposed that it would be just as beneficial to down-ballot candidates – those running for governorships, Congressional seats, and even state legislatures. The Democratic Party may be an endangered species in Mississippi today, Dean would say, but we can grow it – and it will end up paying off at the national level.
As the nominee in ’04, Kerry ran a conventional campaign, targeting the usual handful of swing states and ignoring the rest. When he became chairman in early ’05, Dean revived talk of the 50-state strategy and announced a plan to fund a field worker in every state. But he quickly ran into fierce resistance from the party’s D.C. establishment, particularly from Rahm Emanuel, the quintessential Washington power-player who’d been tapped to lead the Democrats’ effort to win back the House.
Emanuel had his own fall battle plan – money from the DNC would be poured into the most promising targets on the ’06 map – and it had no room for party money to be sent to Mississippi or other red bastions. Dean stood his ground. Ugly fights ensued. Emanuel told Dean he was clueless and endangering the party’s chances of victory. Traditional big donors vowed not to send a dime to the party as long as the current leadership was in charge.
Dean still refused to fold, and finally a compromise was reached, and the idea of the 50-state strategy survived.
And now this: In the wake of his primary triumph, Barack Obama – the candidate who ran against the party establishment on Dean’s issue and who won with Dean’s strategy – has decided to launch a massive and unprecedented push this fall in all 50 states. Paid staff will be sent to every state. Voter registration drives are under way. Television ads will blanket the airwaves in cities that haven’t seen a Democratic presidential candidate in decades.
Obama’s campaign is selling the idea that this election isn’t just about winning the presidential race; it’s about expanding and transforming the Democratic Party. Senate seats are potentially in play in North Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alaska and even Kansas this fall. House seats are within reach in similarly unlikely locales. And redistricting is just a few years away. Democratic legislatures elected in 2008 and 2010 could position the party for a decade of dominance. Texas may be a red state, but its Legislature is within reach for the blue team.
Howard Dean will almost certainly never run for the Democratic nomination ever again. But in a way, he’s already won.