Come Back To the Five & Dime, Howie Dean

Since he became chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean has made a big deal about returning the party to the grassroots. For the past few weeks, he has been barnstorming the country holding fundraisers that seem only one step removed from the populist rallies of his presidential campaign. At an event this week in Boston, for example, guests paid just $50 each to attend. Jeans and T-shirts far outnumbered suits, and hot dogs and popcorn replaced the customary canapes.  

Jumping up to the podium, Dean looked tanned and relaxed, instantly swinging into a modified stump speech from his campaign. Many of his favorite lines from the presidential race were still in circulation, touching on issues like Social Security ("Enron and the boys") and universal healthcare ("even the Costa Ricans"), and adding some new lines to suit the times, like: "The Republicans' view of small government is just big enough to fit inside Terri Schiavo's hospital bed."  

The one issue Dean barely mentioned, however, is the one that helped lift his presidential campaign out of obscurity: The war in Iraq.

Dean's early tirades against the war galvanized the grassroots of the party in 2003, to the extent that thousands of people who had long been disillusioned with the political process were willing to attend house party fundraisers in his honor. Now that public opinion has swung in favor of setting a timetable for bringing American troops home (in a recent Wall Street Journal poll, 59 percent were in favor of bringing home "some or all" of the troops), Dean has been silent, or worse, supportive of the President's increasing quagmire. His stance seems to betray the grassroots activists who propelled him into the role of DNC chair in the first place.  

Two months ago, Dean stood before a crowd in Minnesota and said of Iraq: "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." After those comments, the other main anti-war candidate in the presidential race, Dennis Kucinich, chided Dean in an open letter, writing:

Did these words really come from the same man who claimed to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, and who had recently campaigned on the antiwar theme? ... We can draw no clearer distinction with the President than over this war... The Democratic leadership should be pressing for quick withdrawal of all troops from Iraq.
This past week, Kucinich co-sponsored a bipartisan resolution in the House calling for exactly that -- or at least as close to that as possible in a Republican-controlled Congress, a plan to start bringing the troops home by October 2006. Other Democrats have followed suit, with Senator Russ Feingold introducing a similar measure in the Senate, and 60 members of the House forming an Out of Iraq Caucus, led by members of the Black and Progressive Congressional Caucuses.

Sensing, perhaps, that there is political capital to seize on the Iraq issue, even Democratic members of Congress who were at the core of the propaganda movement calling for the invasion, like Senator Joe Biden, or those who subsequently supported it, like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, have now offered their own -- albeit tepid -- calls for withdrawal.  

So why not Dean? Many of the Democrats who were at the fundraiser in Boston defended the chair's stance on the occupation, even if they were in favor of the withdrawal themselves.

"I feel like he's waffling," said Claire Schlosser, who suppored Dean during the election. "His whole primary campaign was about being anti-war." In the next breath, however, she gushed about his job as DNC chair, saying, "If someone were to ask me what leadership is, he would come to mind."

Her friend, Carl Offner, said he was strongly in favor of bringing the troops home from Iraq; yet, he too spoke fondly of Dean's support of grassroots activists. "There is a welling up of the base, and Dean is not standing in the way," he said. "He's giving voice to that breath of fresh air."  

The disconnect between Dean's stance on troop withdrawal and activists' support of the chair may be in part due to the changed situation in Iraq, which has gone from the black-and-white issue of invasion to the more complicated issue of how and when to get out. Despite the polls, an informal sampling of Democrats at the fundraiser found more nuanced responses to withdrawal than "some", "all" or "none"-- with many genuinely conflicted about how to best clean up the mess in the region. At the same time, nearly all of them approved of the way Dean was doing his job, praising him for his ability to speak his mind and his effort to cut the party off from its addiction to corporate donors.  

Whatever else Dean has so far done for the party, however, there is no way that grassroots activists can wholeheartedly support him and at the same time oppose the war. The war has been a disaster. Every dire prediction of anti-war activists has turned out to be true, from the lies about the rationale for invasion to the increasingly Vietnam-like quagmire that has followed it. As a result, the U.S. occupation is now fueling the insurgency as much as it is preventing it. While reasonable people can disagree about the best way to withdraw the troops and turn the country over to the Iraqis, no progressive who is truly against the war can argue that withdrawal shouldn't begin immediately.  

The irony is that while Dean has championed the grassroots, it's the grassroots who have pushed the issue of troop withdrawal into the spotlight. As far back as last summer's Democratic National Convention, where 80 percent of the delegates were anti-war, a group of progressive delegates led by the Kucinich and Dean delegations fought to get a strong plank in the party platform urging a withdrawal of troops. An eleventh-hour compromise resulted in a muddled statement, reading in part: "As other nations, including Islamic nations, contribute troops, the U.S. will be able to reduce its military presence in Iraq, and we intend to do this when appropriate."

The party then faithfully swallowed the Kool-Aid to unite behind John Kerry, a candidate who was utterly compromised on Iraq, and in fact spent the campaign arguing that we needed to send more troops, not less--to "win the peace." It's not surprising that it wasn't a winning strategy; it took Bush's weakest issue off the table and left an opening for other issues such as gay marriage and abortion to sway swing voters.  

After the convention, Kucinich's delegates coalesced into a political action committee called Progressive Democrats of America, which continued to lobby Congress for withdrawal, even after the anti-war movement sputtered in the face of the widely praised Iraqi election. "I feel like we were the little engine that could," says PDA director Tim Carpenter. "We just kept chugging along." They were joined by other peace groups such as Code Pink and United for Peace with Justice, which decided to add lobbying to a strategy that had before mostly consisted of staging mass demonstrations.  

The groups' efforts achieved their first victory last month, in a two-sentence amendment advocating withdrawal introduced by California Democratic Representative Lynn Woolsey. Although the measure failed, the vote of 300-128 was much higher than anticipated, with 60 percent of Democrats and five Republicans signing on.

"They thought they were going to embarrass us," says Woolsey. "Instead we showed them it was time to start putting together a plan." Woolsey credits that vote with jump-starting the process that led to the Kucinich resolution last week. "The American people want their leaders to be ahead of them," she says, "but when the grassroots are ahead of them, then they have to follow--this is the tail leading the head."  

The PDA's Carpenter, for one, has been disappointed with Dean's lack of leadership during the fight. "We were an early endorser of Howard Dean [for DNC chair], and we support his efforts to take special interests out of the DNC," he says. "But he's wrong on this war. Hopefully we'll continue to push and prod him to speak out."

Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin, however, puts more blame on congressional leaders like Nancy Pelosi, acknowledging the tricky position Dean finds himself in. "I don't think he's the right person to be setting forth policy," she says. "This just shows the kind of forces within the party that are pulling him in different directions."  

The idea that the DNC chair is not supposed to be a spokesman is one that Dean himself put forward during the contest for chair. "Most of the policy pronouncements are going to be coming from the leadership of Congress, not from me," he said. At the same time, he has no problem speaking out on other issues, such as gay marriage and abortion, that are just as divisive within the party.  

Since Dean has not explained his current views on Iraq in detail, it is anyone's guess why he hasn't spoken out against the war. Perhaps he honestly believes that taking a stand would make him a lightning rod for Republicans, allowing them to make the issue about Democrats' lack of support for the troops rather than the merits of withdrawal. If that's true, however, it seems bizarre that so far his public comments don't even go as far as Pelosi, who at least is calling for an exit strategy, or Biden, who is calling for increased foreign involvement and training of Iraqi troops.  

The other alternative is that Dean's comments in Minnesota actually do represent his views on the war, which have always been more wishy-washy than his fiery rhetoric during the election. As far back as 2003, Dean was expressing support for the occupation, albeit with greater United Nations involvement. He is also on the record supporting the U.S. attacks on the former Yugoslavia and the first Gulf War. It could very well be that his silence on the issue now is calculated not to placate the moderates, but to avoid betraying progressives by admitting his real views.  

If so, then the national party runs the risk of running the same losing strategy that, in part, cost them the White House in 2004--taking the war off the table as an issue and emphasizing domestic issues instead.

In Dean's stump speech in Boston, he thundered, "This is the party that is going to offer people opportunity. We're going to win on hope, not fear. We're not going to beat George Bush by telling people what a terrible job he's done." Instead, Dean outlined a strategy of competing in all 50 states, expanding the definition of "moral values" to include issues like healthcare and education reform. When he did mention the issue of war, it was only in the context of better equipping soldiers and providing veteran's benefits.  

Far from empowering the grassroots, then, Dean's emphasis on domestic issues over the war follows the same cautious strategy of the rest of the party. The top candidate for 2008, Hillary Clinton, has already all but sacrificed the Iraq issue to the Republicans. Even the rhetoric and resolutions pushed by Democrats on troop withdrawal are so far for half-steps and bi-partisan consensus, walking a tightrope between getting legislation passed and avoiding public association with calls for getting the troops out.  

"Just at the point where you can show the majority of people are on our side and are sick and tired that we are bogged down, the Democratic party is so divided over this that they are just handing another win to the Republicans," notes Code Pink's Benjamin.  

Dean had the political savvy to see that being vocal about Iraq during his candidacy would give him a real shot at the nomination. He should have recognized this month that there's a major political shift in the works when a coalition of House representatives including vegan pacifist Dennis Kucinich, libertarian xenophobe Ron Paul, and former ambassador for the military-industrial complex Walter Jones stand together in the House of Congress calling for withdrawal of the troops.

At the Boston fundraiser, Dean closed his remarks with a renewed call for guts in the Democratic Party. "When people make decisions that affect our lives, it should be based not on political positions or polls," he said. "When we win, it will be because we speak out about what we believe in."

If Democrats are ever going to break out of the permanent minority, then Dean should follow his own advice--starting with coming clean on the war. If he doesn't unite Democrats over the issue, then it could just be that he and the party will hand it over to the Republicans. Stranger things have happened.

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