In Defense of Howard Dean

When 2012 rolls around, Howard Dean’s chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee will be a distant memory. But when that year’s Democratic primary calendar is cobbled together, you’d better believe that states will think long and hard before trying to do what Florida and—especially—Michigan did this year.

Dean has taken more than his share of heat for the still-unresolved status of both of those states this year, a situation that Hillary Clinton could, supposedly, use to justify taking her campaign all the way to the convention floor in August. It could also complicate Democratic efforts to carry both of these large swing states in November.

But in taking a hard line against Michigan and Florida, which both violated D.N.C. rules by scheduling late-January primaries, Dean has taken a long-overdue stand against out-of-control front-loading and created a precedent for future campaigns that will encourage some semblance of order in the process. And for now, the idea that the drama over both states’ primaries will undermine the party’s general election prospects in both states seems to be based on fear much more than established fact. Trial heats do not show voters in either state taking out their frustrations on Clinton or Obama in match-ups against John McCain.

Dean, not surprisingly, was aggressively questioned on the Michigan-Florida subject when he appeared on Meet the Press on Sunday. At one point, Tim Russert paraphrased for Dean the case most often made against his leadership on the issue.

“Howard Dean should have handled this differently,” Russert said. “He should have interceded and fixed this problem and not allowed us to come to a point where these two states feel dissed and it could hurt us in November.”

Dean pointed out, as he has hundreds of times, that Michigan and Florida, in moving their primaries to January, both violated the very D.N.C. rule for which they had voted—a rule that was passed in the summer of 2006 for the very purpose of avoiding the kind of haggling that is now taking place. In essence, Dean was arguing, what else was I supposed to do?

“This is like having a, a line full of people waiting for something,” he told Russert. “ If two of them jump the line and go to the front, it’s not going to be long before you’re going to have a riot. … Part of my job is to keep order.”

For decades, since the modern primary process began taking shape in the 1970s, Democratic leaders have refused to play the role Dean has this year, and the result has been a primary season that has begun earlier and earlier—Iowa and New Hampshire actually flirted with scheduling theirs for December—with states tripping over each other to move their dates up and loudly carping about being deprived the kind of attention that little New Hamphire and Iowa receive every four years.

Dean actually showed considerable leadership and foresight when, nearly two years ago, he pieced together a compromise calendar that sought to expand the number of influential early states to include more diverse Nevada and South Carolina. Those two states, plus New Hampshire and Iowa, would host the first four contests in a two-week period in late January 2008. No other state could hold a contest before February 5. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an improvement from the past and a sound basis for further tinkering in future cycles. It was also agreed to by every single state. The chairman, it seemed, had warded off what could have been a major distraction.

As Florida and Michigan moved toward scheduling outlaw primaries, Dean nearly went hoarse warning them against it and making clear that there would be repercussions. And when Michigan and Florida still went ahead with this—and, it should be made clear, Florida’s Republican governor and legislature were the main culprits in that state, while Democrats shoulder all of the responsibility in Michigan—what kind of chairman would Dean be if he didn’t follow through on his warnings?

“The voters of Michigan and Florida were not the people that screwed this all up,” he said on Meet the Press.” “It was politicians.”

Efforts in the last two months to schedule re-votes in both states have died, and Dean has been criticized for this as well. But the front-running Obama campaign—which calculated that cooperating with this push would only empower Clinton—is the real culprit here.

Dean did make it clear on Sunday that he’s committed to ensuring some kind of representation for both states at the August convention. What that means, though, is hardly clear. The warnings are now coming fast and furious, mainly from Clinton supporters, about dire repercussions in the fall if Democrats are seen as snubbing both states this summer.

But while voters in both states are surely unhappy about their treatment, they don’t seem to be holding Clinton and Obama responsible. Polls have been plentiful and all over the map, but they’ve routinely shown both Democrats running even with or even ahead of McCain in trial heats. A survey last week gave Obama, whose name wasn’t even on the Michigan ballot in January and whose campaign sabotaged the re-vote effort, two points over McCain (which is several points better than Clinton, who has made the state’s primary plight a major issue in her campaign).

What Dean has done, effectively, is to put the political leaders of both states through hell. If he’d folded, every other state would have taken notice, and the next party chairman (or chairwoman) would have been met with indifference when, come 2010 or 2011, he or she tried to impose some discipline on the 2012 primary process.

Say what you will about Howard Dean, but it’s because of him that when that next party chief speaks up, the states might actually listen.

In Defense of Howard Dean