Howard Dean: The Movement

It has been nearly a year since Howard Dean carried the hopes of liberal Democrats with him on his astonishing rocket ride from near-anonymity to presidential front-runner, and a few months since he brought them back to earth in his equally spectacular primary plummet.

But unlike the other now-vanquished Democratic presidential contenders who have been virtually invisible since the primaries, Howard Dean remains a potent force in American politics.

With his newly-minted political action group, Democracy for America (DFA), the former Vermont governor and bona fide darling of progressives is no longer a political candidate as much as a political movement, albeit a fledgling one. Dean's vision is a bold one: to sustain populism and reclaim democracy.

Dean is trying to capitalize on the famous grassroots support that powered his own campaign -- and transfer that into cells of political involvement across the country, which would, at least theoretically, take on a life of their own. That is the long-term goal.

In the short-term, his goal is much narrower: to deny George W. Bush -- and his conservative compatriots -- a second term. "There's an enormous hunger for standing up to the right wing," Dean said in a recent interview with AlterNet. DFA seeks to turn that appetite into action.

To begin with, Dean has been traveling around the country drumming up support for his former political rival and presumptive Democratic nominee, John F. Kerry. DFA recently raised more than half-a-million dollars in 24 hours for the Senator from Massachusetts.

Launched less than a month ago, DFA has already exceeded its organizational fundraising goals. "We had set a goal of raising $250,000," says spokesman Walker Waugh, "and we got that in less than a week."

Ambitious and manifold, DFA plans on becoming a dynamic new central station for progressive action across the nation. It is already an innovative experiment with potentially significant implications. Take, for instance, the DFA estimate that no fewer than 600 former Dean supporters -- inspired by his own campaign -- are now running for public office in local, state and national races, from mayor of Salt Lake County, Utah to the Arizona Corporation Commission to the U.S. Senate. So far, two rounds of 12 candidates -- dubbed the "Dean Dozen" -- have received an endorsement from DFA, and more are expected to be announced again every two weeks.

"They probably won't all win," says Rick Jacobs, the former chairman of Dean's California election campaign and a current financial backer of DFA. "But the point is that they are all new to the political process, and they will win eventually."

Inquiring candidates need look no further than the DFA web site for information about running in races and receiving the group's endorsement. They will find, for example, a "Candidate Questionnaire," which can be filled out right on the spot. (Among the questions asked: "What role will grass roots organizing play in your campaign?" "What outreach have you done to the Democracy for America/Dean network in your district?" "How do you envision Democracy for America's support helping you in your race?")

If the answers are deemed worthy -- and numerous other variables prove copasetic -- then "We get fully behind them," Waugh says. That support may come in the form of valuable national exposure, or complimentary recruitment of volunteers for local races, or even money. "The more we raise, the more there will be to go around," he adds.

For candidates, there are no straight formulas to charm the DFA. Some may get DFA's official nod of approval simply because they were "brave enough" to challenge ingrained conservative incumbents, Waugh says.

And DFA is about more than just money. In creating the organization, Dean is really addressing an age-old conundrum. "How to sustain an organization through democratic action and eventually minimize the organization's need for fundraising," is how one veteran political organizer put it. In essence, the strategy is old-fashioned, the technology, new-fangled.

Significantly, DFA founders "wanted to make sure that Howard Dean retains a platform and a voice so that the hundreds of thousands of people whom he affected stay involved," says Jacobs. "They wanted to make sure that Democracy for America would grow citizen participation."

And the primary vehicle for that is the DFA web site, which offers a menu of options to get involved, with links to candidates' web sites, numerous progressive events and happenings, voter registration drives and socials by zip code -- allowing Dean supporters and other site surfers to meet face to face. There are as many as 646 such "meet-ups" in cities worldwide on any given day, according to the site.

DFA also links to numerous other national organizations, such as the Service Employees International Union and 21st Century Democrats, whose mission is to train new progressive candidates. In addition, DFA has just started publishing essays by progressive voices such as Arianna Huffington, as well as lively chats and blogs to give others a chance to speak their minds. It is all part of an effort to unite liberals under a single banner, and to fight hard against "the far right-wing and their radical, divisive policies."

For Dean, there is no choice but to stump for his former foe, an incomparably superior candidate, he argues, to the Republican currently occupying the White House. "Four more years of George Bush would destroy the country," he said in his trademark straightforward fashion. "I have my differences with John Kerry," he acknowledged, but immediately tried to smooth those differences over, arguing that Kerry is unfairly characterized by the right wing, and sometimes by the media.

In his view, the press is not immune to fallibility or failure. Dean has been outspokenly critical of political reporters, saying they do not investigate the president and his administration with the same tenacity that they did, for example, during the Nixon years. "The press will believe some of the spin that the RNC puts out," he said.

But if beating Bush is Dean's primary focus this year, his secondary focus is arguably beating another sort of political threat, Independent candidate and fellow progressive, Ralph Nader. Dean makes no secret of his concern that Nader's steadfast refusal to bow out of the race might again cost the Democratic candidate precious votes, as happened in 2000 -- and is working fiercely to dissuade progressives from voting for him.

Asked how best to beat Bush, Dean has a quick and blunt response: "By making sure that people know that a vote for Ralph Nader is a vote for the reelection of Bush."

Many observers fear that Nader's candidacy is already playing into the hands of Bush, by causing Democratic Party activists to spend precious financial resources to spread the "beat Ralph" message. Nader is countering such attacks by saying he will take votes away from Bush, not Kerry, and by casting himself as the only candidate truly committed to an immediate end of the U.S. occupation of Iraq -- not a prolonged pullout that he believes Kerry favors.

Meanwhile, Dean appears to be doing all that he can to "take back the country," as he says, and people are eagerly listening.

At a recent stop at Tulane University, Dean received standing ovations from an overflow crowd of more than 1,800. With that kind of sustained popular appeal for Dean, another campaign is already in the works. "Draft Dean for VP Committee," a new group that recently sprouted up among some of his supporters, has just launched a national petition drive to tap droves of Deaniacs everywhere. Through sheer grassroots force, they say they hope to "create the world's largest vice-presidential draft committee," to convince Kerry to pick Howard Dean as his running mate.

Erica Zeitlin (ericadror@yahoo.com) is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

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