Less than a week after being elected chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Howard Dean met with a group of activists in San Francisco.
Two months earlier, many of the same Democratic stalwarts had dinner with the outgoing DNC chair, Terry McAuliffe. Despite John Kerry’s loss in the presidential race, McAuliffe’s message was remarkably upbeat: For the first time in 30 years, the DNC had raised more money than did the RNC. They had built an impressive Washington headquarters, housing shiny new technology.
McAuliffe’s ebullient demeanor soured during the question and answer session. Many of the activists had worked outside California getting out the vote. They were distressed by what they had encountered: Republican dirty tricks; voting irregularities; dysfunctional systems; antagonism between DNC staff and local Democrats. As one difficult question followed another, McAuliffe seemed to bristle. Finally, he exclaimed, “I didn’t come here to listen to whining!”
There were remnants of this anger in the audience that met with Howard Dean. Unlike McAuliffe, Dean chose to listen to every question, no matter how difficult, and then to propose solutions. Affirming that the national DNC made progress under Terry McAuliffe, Dean plans now to build a functional Democratic committee in every state, no matter how red. He emphasized the necessity for Democrats to create a viable grassroots organization in every community, and from that base to “rebuild the party from the ground up.”
The new DNC chair made two distinctions between the Republican way of doing things and what he sees as the Democratic way. The first is that the Republican Party is hierarchical and controlling; everything is run from Washington—these days by Karl Rove—and states, counties, and precincts obediently follow party directives. (Some have likened this organizational model to the multi-level marketing approach used by Amway.) In contrast, Dean argued, Democrats, at their best, are democratic; therefore, they must begin the rebuilding process at the precinct level by listening to locals and thereby motivating them to take responsibility for the get-out-the-vote organization. Over time, this will result in a new Democratic consensus.
The second distinction that Dean made is between the fundamental process of the two parties: Republicans seek to control their volunteers, while Democrats opt to “empower” theirs. The new DNC leader recognized that it takes more time to empower than it does to dictate, remarking that his approach would take at least four years to bear fruit.
While the main focus of Dean’s remarks, and of the questions from the audience, was on building a better system for the party, he also touched on the core Democratic message. He began by observing that many Americans don’t understand what the Democrats stand for. His solution is not for the party to change its positions, but rather to modify the way that it delivers them. (Here, it seemed, he had been strongly influenced by the “messaging” ideas of UC Berkeley Professor George Lakoff.) For example, Dean observed that Democrats have been backed into a corner where they are “framed” as being in favor of “abortion on demand.”
“Nobody wants more abortions,” he observed, adding that the party must clarify that it is not “for” abortion, but rather for protecting the right of a woman to make her own medical decisions.
Of course, the Democratic message suffers from more than stylistic problems. Howard Dean noted that most Americans understand what the Republican Party stands for: cutting taxes; shrinking the size of government; and having a strong national defense. In contrast, he remarked, the average voter doesn’t know what the Democrats stand for. Dean observed that rather than proffer three or four key objectives, today’s party offers a laundry list of 30 or more “bullet points.”
The new DNC chair believes that the party needs to go through a process where it decides what its three or four most important objectives are and then broadcasts these to the electorate. Rather than have these dictated by some elite group of Washington Beltway insiders, Dean proposes that this new foundation be generated “from the ground up.” He suggests that the party should go through a prolonged exercise where it asks its adherents what they think is most important and then take the top three or four items: health care, homeland security, education, or whatever.
Dean’s talk marked the one-year anniversary of his withdrawal from the race for the Democratic nomination. During that twelve-month period, he and Democrats in general have learned a lot. They have arrived at a new understanding of the changes they must make in order to effectively compete with the Republicans.
While it remains to be seen if the national party is willing to undergo the process “makeover” that Dean is suggesting, those in attendance at the San Francisco meeting were energized by his presentation. He had managed to bring the clear thinking and vigor that characterized his initial presidential campaign to the arduous task of rebuilding the party.
Clearly, Howard Dean has hit the ground running.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.