Dean’s Legacy Is That of Catalyst

Times Staff Writer

Nearly a year ago, a little-known former governor of a small New England state stood before 2,000 Democratic Party activists in a Sacramento convention hall and took on President Bush.

“I don’t think we can win the White House if we vote for the president’s unilateral attack on Iraq and then come to California and say we’re against the war,” Howard Dean shouted, drawing whoops and cheers.

The brash and sometimes intemperate upstart continued to focus his fire on Bush -- and his fellow Democrats -- in a way that came to define much of the 2004 campaign for the White House. His message and his campaign’s fundraising prowess dominated the Democratic nomination contest for months.


Ultimately, at a time of international terrorism and economic uncertainty, Democrats decided they were unwilling to take a chance on a blunt-speaking, relative unknown.

Much of the history of the presidential race will center on Dean’s stunning collapse -- from front-runner to dropout in less than a month -- but a few chapters also should be reserved for his role as a catalyst. The five-term governor of Vermont energized new voters by the thousands, demonstrated the power -- and limits -- of the Internet as a political tool and spurred other Democrats to sharply challenge the president, even before his popularity began to slip in opinion polls.

“Howard Dean created an opportunity for Democrats -- who had been very timid, tepid and restrained -- to find their voice in this election,” said Jonah Seiger, a scholar at George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet. “He burst on the scene ... and energized the party ... and in so doing, he created space for all the others.”

Added Democratic strategist Donna Brazile: “He gave the Democratic Party back its electoral groove. He made it fashionable again to fight.”

When the end for Dean’s campaign came Wednesday, it was characteristic that he delivered the first word via cyberspace. He urged more than 600,000 people on his campaign’s e-mail list to keep pressing for change within the party and the country.

“In the coming weeks, we will be launching a new initiative to continue the campaign you helped begin,” Dean wrote, urging followers to keep checking his website for specifics. “There is much work still to be done, and today is not an end -- it is just the beginning.”

Many Dean backers were already pledging to vote for him in upcoming primaries in an effort to keep the spotlight on key parts of his platform, which include limiting campaign contributions to $250 per individual, expanding early childhood education programs and making health insurance available for all Americans.

But what Dean will do next remained uncertain after his withdrawal speech in Burlington. His closest supporters said he was still struggling with the form of the initiative he promised to launch, although he had talked on the campaign trail of raising money for Democrats to help the party take control of the U.S. House from Republicans.

One challenge he faces is that history is rife with insurgent presidential hopefuls who have tried, and failed, to maintain their place on the national stage.

After losing the Democratic nomination to Bill Clinton in 1992, former California Gov. Jerry Brown refused to swear off another run for the presidency and said he would use his list of 180,000 contributors to maintain his clout. Instead, he became mayor of Oakland and now is considering a run for attorney general of California.

Ross Perot morphed from inspirational outsider in 1992 to a marginalized contender by 1996. His Reform Party collapsed amid bickering over priorities and leadership.

A better model for Dean, some analysts said, might be Sen. John McCain of Arizona. After a failed bid for the 2000 Republican nomination, McCain used his popularity to help win approval for a sweeping campaign finance reform measure.

Dean might make a potent campaign reform spokesman, given his ability to rely mainly on small donations to amass more than $50 million for his presidential campaign. His biggest problem may be that -- having left the Vermont Statehouse -- he has no office from which to launch his proposals.

That leaves Dean facing the possibility of a quick fade from the national consciousness.

Cable television networks paired footage of his withdrawal speech with replays of his frenzied remarks to supporters when he finished third in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses. His showing indicated that his support was slipping, and his speech raised questions among some about his temperament.

But during his campaign, Dean clearly inspired many others, particularly young voters, who frequently approached him to quietly say he had restored their faith in politics.

“Who does get remembered?” asked Wayne Fields, the director of American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. “I find my students don’t have a clue who Ross Perot was. But that’s not the important thing.... [Dean] contributed to the process, and that’s no small thing. He should take pride in that.”

Although the shelf life of the Dean movement remains very much in question, there can be no doubt that for many months it galvanized hundreds of thousands of Americans.

They found in him a voice for their frustrations with the war in Iraq, tax cuts for the wealthy and the reworking of environmental regulations under the Bush administration. And they learned that they were not alone -- meeting each other by the score on Dean weblogs and at neighborhood “Meetups.”

While other candidates were drawing hundreds to their rallies -- at most -- Dean jolted the establishment last summer by luring 3,000 people in Austin, Texas, and 10,000 in Seattle. In the sincerest form of flattery, Dean’s rivals soon began to adopt much of his rhetoric, lambasting Bush’s foreign policy and accusing the president of being a captive of special interests.

Dean mused about his legacy at a rally Monday in La Crosse, Wis.

“That was one of the first things I wanted to do, is change the Democratic Party,” he said. “You know what they learned from us? They learned that when you stand up for what you believe in, without worrying about the polls, that is a much more powerful message than a focus group-given message.”

But Dean’s sense of purpose and of command may have been overblown. Although his online supporters may have seemed to hang on the candidate’s every word, that support proved thin when spread across 50 states and multiple elections.

And the Internet had its downside for Dean.

“Dean’s successes cascaded through the network. But so did his failures,” said Seiger of George Washington University.

The candidate’s rise and fall was so rapid that his loyal supporters say they will need some time to sort through the wreckage. But many said Wednesday they were determined to vote for Dean in the hope of influencing the Democratic agenda.

Eugene Hedlund, a 29-year-old mortgage broker from Riverside, became so inspired by Dean that he started a website ( to raise funds for the candidate. He managed to collect about $64,000, which went to radio ads for Dean in several states.

Hedlund urged fellow Dean backers Wednesday to withhold judgment on the other Democrats and vote for Dean in upcoming primaries, giving him more leverage over the party platform at the Democratic National Convention in July.

“The more involved Gov. Dean is, the more likely that his supporters will remain involved and bring their energy to help the Democratic nominee carry the election,” Hedlund said in an interview.

Dean weblogs also brimmed with reports of the faithful announcing their candidacies for school boards, city councils and seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. One even reported a bid to take on House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

In Concord, N.H., die-hard Dean supporters grasped this week for what to do next. At a weekly margarita meeting at Hermanos Mexican restaurant most said this week they would back Kerry or another Democratic nominee, but with little passion.

They also laid plans to devote more of their political energy to state and local Democrats, said Terry Lochhead, an education consultant who is part of the group.

“Dean brought together a movement and he’s going to keep us together,” said Peter Lackowski, a retired elementary school teacher from Jericho, Vt. who went to Burlington to hear the former governor give his farewell address.

“It’s meant real hope, hope that real change can happen. We’re going to keep the movement going.”