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100 Days and Counting

The Democratic Party in D.C. is ready to call Dean a disaster, but the local parties love what he's done so far. Who's right and who's wrong?
 
 
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No one wrote about Terry McAuliffe's first 100 days as the chair of the Democratic National Committee. I'm willing to bet the landmark didn't even occur to anyone, with the exception, perhaps, of Mr. McAuliffe himself. But when 100 days passes and his successor, Howard Dean -- the most highly anticipated, scrutinized, equally loathed and beloved DNC chair in recent memory -- is at the helm of the party, it's a different story. It is, in fact, a story.

It goes without saying that 100 days is an arbitrary and premature point at which to assess whether Dean is saving or screwing the party. Right-wing pundits have already started celebrating what they see as Dean's speedy march towards failure. Although Dean is hitting "record levels," according to DNC spokesperson Laura Gross, with a million-dollar-a-week fundraising pace, conservatives are gloating over RNC chair Ken Mehlman's $34.2 million-twice the amount Dean has raised so far.

And Dean's image problem was and still is a primary concern of party leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, who publicly opposed Dean's candidacy and privately urged him to tone down his rhetoric after being appointed Dean sent shudders through the Democratic establishment with his now-infamous suggestion in May that Tom Delay "go back to Houston, where he can serve his jail sentence."

Even Barney Frank, not exactly a tight-lipped centrist, said Dean's words were "overstate[d]," "unfair," and "just inappropriate." Meanwhile, the people who make up Dean's base -- progressives and grassroots activists eager for an overhaul of the Democratic Party -- haven't been too pleased either. Many are uncomfortable with the news that Dean is buddying up with establishment D.C. Democrats like Reid and New York Senator Chuck Schumer; others are uneasy with him spending time in Washington period.

On April 20 Dean told a Minnesota audience about his Iraq war stance, "Now that we're there, we're there and we can't get out? I hope the President is incredibly successful with his policy now."

Coming from a former presidential candidate whose momentum was built largely on a candid and unwavering anti-Iraq war platform, the statement prompted immediate outrage on the left, voiced in an open letter to Dean from longtime peace activist Tom Hayden. Dennis Kucinich followed Hayden's lead, asking Dean, "Did these words really come from the same man who claimed to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party? It was [our] hope and expectation that you would prevent the party from repeating its past drift to the Republican-lite center."

Dean's first major media appearance as DNC chair did little to abate the criticism. Appearing on Meet the Press on May 22nd, Dean endured an endless barrage of linguistic nitpicking from Tim Russert. Intent on perpetuating Dean's image as an unstable hothead, Russert gave the chairman little opportunity to explain his vision for the Party, instead tossing out gems like, "You said in December of 2003 that we shouldn't prejudge Osama bin Laden. How can you sit here and have a different standard for Tom DeLay and prejudge him?"

Republicans on the Hill snickered. And for the soundbyte-oriented Democratic establishment, this was proof positive of everything they'd warned about Dean. Hayden and Kucinich couldn't have been too happy about the performance either. Even though Dean stood firm on his criticism of Delay, he equivocated on abortion and didn't even approach the issue of withdrawal from Iraq.

It's no wonder then that Dean has avoided the national spotlight, with criticism being launched at him from all sides and media-jealous Democratic colleagues muttering about his inability to stay "on message." But perhaps the main reason that Dean's been AWOL from the Sunday talk show circuit is that he's been busy traveling the country, learning about the state of politics at the local level. Since he began as chair on February 12, Dean's priorities have been set less on cultivating a perfect, all-encompassing message for the Democratic Party and more on "showing up."

In the last three months, Dean has visited 18 states, where he has met with Democratic officials at the state and local level and promoted his plan to build the party infrastructure from the bottom up. Unlike McAuliffe, Dean isn't arriving in limousines; he's flying coach, paying for his own bus tickets, and carrying his own bags. And if you listen to the people that Dean has spent most of his tenure thus far speaking to -- people in some of the Reddest states of the country -- Dean is doing a fantastic job

Dean ran for chair on a platform promising to radically depart from the previous DNC strategy of targeting specific states during crucial election cycles. His plan was to focus on all fifty states, cultivate candidates at all levels of government, and get paid grassroots organizers on the ground immediately. "I'm not much of a Zen person," he remarked upon accepting chairmanship, "But I've found that the path to power, oddly enough, is to trust others with it. That means putting the power where the voters are." Judging from my conversations with state and county leaders, Dean is doing exactly that.

Dean's "Red, White, and Blue" tour through the South was initially met with trepidation, not only by Democratic insiders, but also state party leaders who feared Dean's aggressive "northeastern liberal" style wouldn't fly in their states. When Dean showed up, for the most part, those impressions were shattered. The Dean they saw was not a firebrand, but a pragmatic leader determined to build the nuts and bolts of the party. "I was nervous before Governor Dean came to town," said Gabe Holmstrom, Executive Director of the Arkansas Democratic Party, "but I found that Dean had a lot of insight into local politics and a real interest in taking a much more aggressive role in organizing from the grassroots. His commitment was clear." Party leaders described crowds at Dean events in their states as "electric," "ecstatic," and "very excited." Nick Casey, West Virginia's State Chair told me people were driving in "three hours from the south, five hours from the east, just to hear him."

After years of being virtually ignored by the DNC, state party leaders are extremely enthusiastic about Dean's state partnership program. On April 8, Dean announced the first round of his investments in the states, half a million dollars that would be spread among the state parties of Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, and West Virginia. Since then, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Wyoming, and Kansas have received DNC funding. In Nebraska-which received ten times the $12,000 they got from Terry McAuliffe last year-the state party is putting organizers in all 93 of their counties. In West Virginia, Casey is excited about using the additional funds to recruit teachers to serve as mentors for Young Democrats clubs at high schools, and energizing long-stagnant groups like the Federation of Democratic Women. "In 2004, we started campaign after the May primary," says Casey. "We just started our coordinating campaign a month ago for 2008. That makes a hell of a difference."

Chairs from other states which are yet to receive funding, such as Arizona's Jim Pederson, are looking forward to boosting the basics-improving technology, getting enhanced voter files, and putting organizers on the ground to reach out to potential voters who haven't been contacted in years. Montana's State Chair, Bob Ream, is thrilled about the prospects of hiring more organizers for his state. "We only have one person trying to cover the whole state as a field organizer. With funding, we can get two or three more and locate them in far eastern and western Montana," Ream says. "Precinct level organizing was something our party did forty or fifty years ago and I think it's important to get back to that, especially in a state like ours that is so scattered, population-wise."

The state leaders I spoke with all praised Dean for allotting them with real independence, a tangible indicator of what they see as his dedication to the bottom-up model. Gabe Holmstrom is glad that Dean is "shifting the power outside of the Beltway" an allowing his state party to hire its own staff, from its own state, on its own terms. Jim Hester, State Chair from Tennessee agrees, saying that "It's important from a messaging standpoint too, because it's better when people who are living in the real world -- people who get up, go to work, feed their kids -- are sharing their concerns about the country. We need to talk about what we real people need, not what the disconnected folks in Washington think we need."

Hadley Glover, a 31-year-old mom and Democratic chair of Arkansas' Benton County, says Dean's plan is "music to her ears." With the highest Republican population in the state, Benton County residents are inundated with negative portrayals of Democrats. But with money and county officials on their side, Glover says, Benton county residents can define the party themselves. "It's easy to cast stones or call names or dismiss political parties with cliches. It's very difficult to do the same thing when it's your next door neighbor or the person you go to church with," says Glover. "We've got to put a face on the party that people know. It's very easy for them to dismiss John Kerry as a 'babykiller.' It isn't so easy to call Hadley Glover a 'babykiller.'"

According to Hester, Dean's not only giving state and county-level parties independence to cultivate their own messages, he's asking for their help in cultivating a national message for the party. "We've had more communication and more of a close working relationship with the DNC in the short time he's been here since any other time in my memory," says Hester. "There's a real back and forth exchange of ideas that's taking place now." In Dean, Glover hears the DNC saying, "'We don't have to control all the purse strings, we don't have to make all of the yes-or-no decisions in order to make this work.'"

Time will tell if Dean truly intends to continue in his commitment to the grassroots. Dean intends to personally visit or send DNC staff to party headquarters at all fifty states by the end of July, and plans to extend his partnership program to every state in the country as soon as possible. But will he continue to pour money into organizing on the local level in 2006 and 2008? If the establishment feels the grassroots have gained too much power, will Dean buckle?

Democratic pollster Pat Caddell, who says he saw Dean "roll over like a puppy after Kerry won the nomination when he should have put pressure on him," is a skeptic. Caddell thinks Dean's grassroots talk could very well just be a gimmick. "If you're really going to be empowering people you actually have to let them in, rather than just get money off of them," he says. Additionally, he doubts that the grassroots energy from 2004 can carry over much longer. "You cannot sustain the grassroots enthusiasm without changing what the party stands for. You can't tell me the Democrats have a real vision right now. The grassroots can only exist when you believe in something."

Still, state party leaders like Hester are optimistic. "What Dean is doing right now has never happened before in an off-election year," says Hester. "He's going out there right now and putting DNC money where his mouth is. He said he was gonna come down South and listen to us and that's what he did. That's real and that's tangible."

For all the hits on Dean coming from Washington for his slow fundraising start, his lack of media savvy, and his as-yet undelivered technological improvements to the party machine, it's worth noting that the D.C. Democrats who criticize him don't have much to stand on as they've been a bunch of losers in the recent elections. After all, the only real political "experts" out there are the ones who win campaigns.

The Democratic state chairs in the heavily Republican states -- who have seen why Democrats have been losing firsthand -- think Dean's taken the right approach. His face-to-face meetings with local party officials and his message of devolving power from Washington are proving to Democrats across the country that they can and should be a part of the political process. And that, at 100 days in, is something can Dean be proud of.

Sam Graham-Felsen is co-author with The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel of the weekly online feature, Sweet Victories .