Democracy and Elections

Is Howard Dean Getting Screwed and Why?

He's been a governor, an inspiring grassroots hero, a reformer of the Democratic Party -- will he join Obama's White House or head back home?

Is Howard Dean getting a raw deal? Barack Obama owes many elements of his successful run for the White House and padded Democratic majorities in the House and Senate to the departing Democratic National Committee chairman's grassroots leadership and pioneering Internet-based presidential candidacy. But there's no clear sign that Dean figures in the new president's plans.

Hard as it may seem to recall now, parallels with Dean's 2004 surge were among the most notable features of Obama's early campaign. Not only were Obama and Dean relative unknowns who generated early enthusiasm and cash flows on the Internet, Obama campaign manager David Axelrod was a friend and admirer of Dean's campaign guru Joe Trippi.

Among the DNA and staff shared between the two campaigns, Obama's new media director, Joe Rospars, was a Dean vet and former Internet director for Dean's DNC. Obama may have refined the Webcentric Dean model, careful to avoid its most punishing mistakes, but the basic lineage was never disputed. It was a correct and easy to tag Obama during the early primaries "Dean 2.0."

Given the debt Obama clearly owes to Dean -- as well as the personal respect the president is known to hold for him -- many Dean netroots loyalists are confused as to why their man was not chosen to head the Health and Human Services Department, given his experience and interest in health care reform (Dean was a doctor before entering politics, and enacted major health care reforms as governor of Vermont). With Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said to be high on Obama's list to replace the disgraced nomination of Tom Daschle, Dean looks unlikely to benefit from the recent scandal.

But as disappointing as Dean's failure to make Obama's cabinet is for Dean's loyal legions, many felt a more stinging slap in Dean's glaring absence from the changing-of-the-DNC-guard ceremony in Washington. When Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine assumed control of the party apparatus last month, Dean was traveling. No request was made by the White House that he reschedule to attend the event. The Beltway press was soon frantically reading tea leaves for an answer to the question: Was Dean's lack of an invitation an intentional slam by White House chief of staff Rahm Emanual, with whom Dean has famously clashed over tactics and strategy for electing more Democrats? Or was it just a scheduling conflict, no biggie, asDean diplomatically maintains?

Whatever the case, it's appropriate that Dean spent his last day as chairman of the DNC not in Washington, but in the South Pacific, visiting Democrats in the U.S protectorate of American Samoa. His visit to the micro-territory was the final piece in his jigsaw puzzle of his promise to visit every Democratic organization on U.S. soil, the perfect capstone to a tenure defined by his goal to build up the party from sea to shining sea, in states ranging across the red-blue spectrum (and, in the case of Samoa, beyond).

If one motif runs through Dean's meteoric rise from the governor of a tiny state, to a dark horse populist candidate who inspired millions with his "You Have the Power!" message, to being the campaign and fund-raising face of the ruling political party, it's that Dean has been willing to take his cause into every corner of every state. His famous "scream" after finishing third in the 2004 Iowa caucuses involved Dean listing off what seemed like all 50 states, which he promised supporters he would take in the weeks and months ahead. In 2005, he announced his intention to build the Democratic Party in all 50 states, including red regions like the Deep South, as well as red districts in blue states. Most recently, Dean has announced that he's taking the 50-state strategy global, with plans to consult on campaigns and technology for center-left parties around the world. Once humankind begins colonizing the galaxy, Howard Dean will no doubt be there to pioneer the Democrats' 50-planet strategy.

In reflecting on Dean's legacy, the most obvious place to start is the current Democratic trifecta. As was given cursory mention in his absence in Washington, Dean leaves office with the Democrats in possession of both houses of Congress and the White House. When Dean ran for president in 2004, Karl Rove was speaking seriously about a permanent Republican majority. Today, it makes more sense to speak of a permanently shrinking Republican minority. It is of course debatable how much this can be attributed to Dean's vision. But his supporters argue that the change Dean spearheaded had, and continues to play, a major role.

More than anything else, Dean's project involved changing the relationship between the national center of the Democratic Party and its hundreds of state and county offices.

"There's a lot of ink spilled on the personalities involved, [but] the heart of Howard's challenge was based on what he thought the role of the DNC should be," says Jim Dean, Howard's brother and director of Democracy for America, the organizational offshoot of the 2004 Dean campaign. "Howard came in with the belief that local parties and activists should be empowered locally, and that the DNC should build the party, not just fight elections."

Dean's idea was radical because it was not just limited to local chapters and activists in competitive districts and swing states. Dean's year-round, 50-state strategy sought to provide resources to corners of the country long-ago abandoned to what were considered permanent post-Reagan electoral shifts.

There was never a shortage of critics of this strategy -- among them major Dem party players Emanuel, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and James Carville -- some of whom called for Dean's resignation after the 2006 midterms, during what should have been a moment of appreciation. The critics preferred to see DNC money spread around in a more targeted and traditional manner, funding congressional and presidential candidates in swing states and districts, and not used to build party organizations based on some abstract notion of "empowerment."

But it turned out that building the party from the ground up got results, with a host of states suddenly in play. What's more, local and state Dem chapters were grateful for and reinvigorated by Dean's help, even if it was only a couple of staffers and a pinch from the national treasure chest.

As state and local party leaders await Tim Kaine's new plan for the DNC, expected by April, some have expressed concern that it may scale back Dean-style party building in favor of targeting close elections and pushing the presidential agenda.

"We know the party has to be Obamacentric, but our success these four years was owed to the fact that the staffers were able to help on any level," one state chair told CNN.com last month. "And if it now becomes, 'Do this one thing for the administration,' then you lose that foundation."

According to Jim Dean, the 50-state strategy has led to increased intraparty amity and better coordination, as well as some surprising electoral victories.

"Although people in D.C. initially criticized him, he brought the national party more in line with what people in the rest of the country really needed. Before his tenure at the DNC, the state parties feuded with the national party over resources," says Jim Dean. "Now the relationship between local and national parties has changed for the better. The Beltway media may have focused on the relationships and debates in D.C., but the real story is how the DNC went from a D.C. organization to national party organization in the eyes of Democrats around the country."

The 50-state strategy of party building is embodied by Democracy for America. Recently, the organization publicly urged the DNC not to turn its back on Howard Dean's legacy. "We have both kept an eye on the other," says Jim Dean, describing the relationship between DFA and the DNC.

Democracy for America has grown to become a force to contend with on the national scene. During the last four years, the organization has grown its membership from 350,000 to more than 1 million. Staff includes many of those involved in the 2004 campaign, while other DFA alumni have gone on to work at senior positions for the Democratic Party and on major campaigns. Notably, DFA endorsed the former Illinois state senator Obama for his U.S. Senate race in 2004. While DFA does not have any formal ties with the DNC, it does maintain relationships with the state parties.

"These relationships are good because we have been training activists and first-time candidates all over the country for nearly four years, not to mention local candidate support and the work of our groups," says Jim Dean. "Many state parties enthusiastically welcome the support that an organization like DFA can provide. Some of our best work has been in states not traditionally seen as strong Democratic strongholds."

The relationship is not always without strain, however.

"There are sometimes tensions in more established Democratic states, some of whose members might feel threatened by our brand of activism and empowerment. The same could be said about our relationships with local parties: mostly good and some work-in-progress," says Jim Dean.

As for Howard Dean's dark horse chances for replacing Daschle in Obama's cabinet, Jim Dean still thinks his brother would make a good choice.

"I do think Howard is the right man for the job. He greatly expanded health coverage and worked state and federal programs to do so. He got a lot done with very little to work with. He is very familiar with administering the government's role in health care. As a former physician, he is also very familiar with issues surrounding the relationship between patients, providers and health plans."

Even without a formal role in the administration, Howard Dean will remain involved in national debates on everything from Democratic Party building to health care. As we learned during the early stages of the 2004 campaign, he is capable of inspiring people. And as we learned in Iowa, his voice tends to carry.

Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist.