How's Dean Doing?

Editor's Note: Howard Dean's first 100 days as chair of the Democratic National Committee recently passed. Marty Kaplan, host of the Air America Radio show What Else is News?, ran a two-hour special taking a look at Dean's performance as party chair and the issues Dean and the DNC will face in coming elections.

Kaplan spoke with Democratic party organizer Tom Cosgrove, In These Times author Chris Hayes, Antonio Gonzalez of the Velasquez Institute, and Emily's List founder Ellen Malcolm. What follows is a transcript from segments of Kaplan's show.

Marty Kaplan: A few weeks ago, Tom Cosgrove wrote a letter to Howard Dean... which goes on to say that the Democrats should bring back their mid-term convention, which the Democrats discontinued in 1982: "Define the agenda of this convention, now, as having a debate about ideas -- for the United States, at home and abroad. Set up a process focused on getting ideas, collecting data that determine whether these ideas are good or bad, and invite people from all ranks of the Party, to debate those ideas as participants."

Eventually, Tom got a response from Dr. Dean: "Dear Tom, You kind letter means a lot to me. Thanks for your kind words of congratulations. We're very committed to reaching out to voters across the country, and certainly will consider lots of ideas to accomplish our goals. I do appreciate your suggestions, and am grateful for your support, and I'm looking for the challenges that lie ahead, and I hope that we can all look forward to a great convention in... 2008."

Tom, I've worked in offices that you have. That sounds like robo #6 that got to you.  

Tom Cosgrove: It's either a robo of #6 or a merger of #6 and #7, I'm not sure which.

Kaplan: Do you think that someone was asleep at the switch, or do you think that Dean was so overwhelmed that the best they can do is send blanket acknowledgement?

Cosgrove: I'm not trying to imagine what's goes on inside the DNC these days... I do know that the idea got a tremendous reaction from people all across the country. I've had members of Congress — both current and former — who like it, party leaders, party fundraisers. And it's been joined by people like Walter Kronkite, who summed up the meat of it. I took two pages, he took two sentences. He said that the Democratic Party needs to organize a convention this year to debate and resolve a platform that would provide the confused electorate some of what the party stands for — a regretfully missing ingredient in the politics of the moment.

Kaplan: Let me ask you about previous mid-term conventions that the Democratic Party has held. In 1982 the mid-term convention turned out to be a cattle show for all the prospective Democratic [presidential] nominees, and the reporting about it was not about who had the best ideas, but who had the best applause lines. How do we avoid the fratricide, and the entertainment-icide?

Cosgrove: I think you raise a good point. But to be fair, the headlines, if you search, were all about Reagan, and what was wrong with Reaganomics, and in November of that year, we went back and won a record number of House and Senate seats. So the idea that the '82 convention hurt the party, which was the premise behind those who killed the mid-term convention post-1984, I think was wrong.  

Kaplan with Chris Hayes:

Kaplan: Howard Dean is a big fan of retail politics. Have you seen any signs that the DNC is moving to organizing around [issues of personal debt, health care coverage, and the living wage?]

Chris Hayes: Yes, Dean's candidacy changed him. It converted him to this belief in retail politics — I don't know if he started out that way. I've been talking to a few people associated with Dean at the DNC, and one of the things he's been talking about is hiring two organizers for every state party office; his big focus is to rebuild the state parties. I think people have in mind that there are people running around in these offices, but it's just not true.

In Ohio, the state Democratic Party — I don't know how many staffers they have exactly, but it's not a whole lot. And if you go to a place like Idaho or Tennessee, yes, there's a state Democratic Party, but it's not filled out in any way. At the most basic level, you need organizers on the ground. And Dean is a huge believer in that. One of his big priorities right now is that he's running around the country trying to raise money for the state parties. I do think Dean is on the right track.

Kaplan with Antonio Gonzalez:

Kaplan:  Vermont is not a state known for having a large Latino population. What's your sense of Howard Dean's familiarity with Latino issues and people?

Antonio Gonzalez: I think as governor of Vermont, he was utterly unfamiliar with Latino issues and values. But as candidate for president -- this is one of the great benefits of running for president — you have to see the whole country, and experience it, and dialogue with it. And I'm certain that Dean has upped his "Latino IQ" in the interim period. Though I'm also certain that he could benefit from a lot more interaction with the Latino community.

Kaplan: I know that the Velazquez Institute is non-partisan, but if you were to meet with him and give him some advice in his job, in terms of the Latino community, what would you tell him?

Antonio Gonzalez: I would tell Howard Dean that the Latino community is a group that continues to see itself as working class, that sees its’ politics as populist. Latinos believe that the government should stick up for the little guy. Latinos believe that government should act when there's a crisis in issues of education, health care, war and peace. Latinos are not that different in their political attitude from the ethnic immigrants of two generations ago.

Kaplan with Ellen Malcolm:

Kaplan:  How do you think Howard Dean is doing?

Ellen Malcolm: I think he's doing a good job. He's out there on the road, out in the states, talking to people. He has a mammoth undertaking, and I give him tremendous credit for looking at the lay of the land of the party, and understanding how important it is for the DNC to invest in an infrastructure to help Democrats win.

Kaplan: If you had a moment to sit down with him and say what you just said, and then move in for the kill and say “But the one thing I wish you could do more of, is..."

Malcolm: If I had one conversation with him, it would be about the choice issue and its impact on the 2004 elections. After the election, there was a lot of talk about values and what Democrats should do; should we back away from some of our core positions on issues like choice? We [at Emily's List] started hearing all these rumblings, and so we got Mark Mellman, John Kerry's pollster, to go back and look at the data and, in fact, choice was not a huge factor in the presidential election. Only six percent of the voters said it was really important to them, and two-thirds of those people actually supported John Kerry. So I think it's important that we take the right lessons out of 2004...

I think Dean's been a bit over the edge about talking about recruiting pro-life candidates. What we need to do is stand by our pro-choice values, speak to voters about why we think it's important to keep government out of our private lives in our most personal decisions, and if we do that, we'll tap into that pro-choice majority in this country.  

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