A few weeks ago, when former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean declared his intention to run for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, news reports had the general tone of “Get this, that crazy scream guy is back and he wants to run the party.” Now, a week before the vote, his victory is a fait accompli. How did this happen? Are Democrats suicidally crazy?
Wait. That’s too easy. Let me rephrase the question. Why are Democrats suicidally crazy?
The conventional rap against Dean as DNC chairman is essentially the same as the conventional rap against him as presidential candidate a year ago. Namely, he reinforces all the party’s weaknesses. Democrats need to appeal to culturally traditional voters in the Midwest and border states who worry about the party’s commitment to national security. Dean, with his intense secularism, arrogant style, throngs of high-profile counterculture supporters and association with the peace movement, is the precise opposite of the image Democrats want to send out.
The conventional rap is completely right. But, in a way, Dean is even less suited to run the DNC than he is to run for president.
The DNC chairman has two main jobs. First, he transmits the party’s message -- an important role when the party lacks a president and majority leaders in Congress. This job requires one to master the dismal art of “message discipline,” boiling down the party’s ideas into a few simple phrases and repeating them over and over until they have sunk into the public consciousness.
It’s a role for which Dean is particularly ill suited. During his campaign, remember, he fashioned himself a straight talker, delighting reporters by repeatedly wandering “off message.” On the plus side, he won friends in the media by appearing honest and human. On the negative side, he did himself enormous damage, when, for example, he suggested that he wouldn’t prejudge Osama bin Laden until he had been convicted in a court of law.
For presidential candidates, the negatives of “straight talk” usually outweigh the positives. Paul Maslin, Dean’s former pollster, wrote in the Atlantic Monthly after the campaign fell apart: “Our candidate’s erratic judgment, loose tongue, and overall stubbornness wore our spirits down.” But at least for a presidential campaign there are some positives in going off message. In a job like party chairman, a loose cannon is nothing but downside.
The second major task of the DNC chairman is to run the party organization. And here, if this is at all possible, Dean looks even worse. Garance Franke-Ruta, who wrote sympathetic Dean pieces in the American Prospect during the campaign, spoke with several former Dean staffers. One called the candidate “a horrible manager” and added, “I wouldn’t trust him to run a company.” Another called his management style “just a disaster.”
Dean, remember, raised about $50 million by positioning himself as the most anti-Bush candidate, but blew through it so fast that he was nearly broke by January. This represents the sort of financial acumen you associate with deluded, flash-in-the-pan celebrities -- cue the narrator for VH-1’s “Behind the Music": “But the good times and lavish spending couldn’t last for M.C. Hammer” -- not with chairmen of major political parties.
So, how did Dean manage to trounce all comers for this position? Dean’s supporters see his triumph as the victory of the masses over a tiny Democratic elite desperately trying to cling to power. As one left-liberal blogger gloated: “The fact that Howard Dean will most likely be heading up the Democratic Party is our victory. It is the voice of the grass roots lifted up into the halls of power once owned by the ‘aristocracy of consultants.’ ” That actually has it backward. A recent Wall Street Journal poll found that only 27% of Democrats approve of Dean.
In the latest issue of the New Republic, Ryan Lizza described how Dean had prevailed in a process of third-rate intrigue. The choosing of the DNC chairman has been dominated by state parties, whose concerns revolve around expanding perks, including a demand for a $200,000 handout for each state party from the national party. Nobody seemed to pay much attention to the good of the party as a whole. Meanwhile, Dean touched those leaders’ ideological erogenous zones, promising to “feed our core constituencies” and not be “Republican-lite.”
As the last election showed, the core constituencies are plenty well fed. There just aren’t enough of them to win the White House.