Shout It Out, Howard, We’re Listening

Jim Edmunson is chairman of the Oregon Democratic Party. He is an attorney in private practice in Eugene, and he served four terms in the state Legislature. He can be reached at

Howard Dean’s election as Democratic National Committee chairman was a shot across the bow of Washington’s power clique, so it does not surprise us at the state-party level in Oregon that he is making our kin inside the Beltway nervous.

In fact, it delights us.

Dean speaks loudly about things our folks in Washington tip-toe to avoid. He condemns the Iraq war as misguided. He wonders why we don’t worry more about nuclear weapons in North Korea.

Republicans preach morality, he says, but ignore poverty in the United States. Where is the respect for privacy when Republicans want to legislate end-of-life decisions for a brain-dead woman?


And Dean, the white Christian, acerbically grumbles that our nation is not stronger if we are viewed only as Caucasian mono-religious.

Are those comments misguided, or are they timely? The way we see it from this end of the country, the former presidential candidate is catching the wave.

Polls show that most Americans now oppose the Iraq war, favor the stem cell research that the Bush administration opposes and think Congress should not have meddled -- and asked those dastardly “activist courts” to meddle -- in the painful case of Terri Schiavo. That latter poll, incidentally, was taken before the brain-damaged woman’s autopsy confirmed that she had no hope of recovery.

Based on the outcome of last year’s election, Democrats in Washington fear that Dean is out of step with the swing moderates in both parties. That’s an understandable concern, but it shouldn’t outweigh our desire for leaders who stand on principle. It also ignores the apparent shift in the country’s mood since the election.

One more thing. Washington Democrats tend to see the world through the prism of their own political futures. Those of us west of the Potomac recognize the impulse. But we want a party leader who inspires the Democratic base, keeps it involved and energized, and we want to hear truths because we have faith that straight talk is the best way to talk to Americans. There is more to leading this party than not scaring the horses.

Does Dean inspire?

* At a DNC forum for candidates in Washington in 2003, he turned the pinstriped audience ashen by declaring, “I’m here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” Democrats must reach out, even to “white folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals in the back.” A woman whispered to me, “He’s right.”

* In 100-degree swelter in Portland that same year, 5,000 supporters showed up to cheer him on.

* On an icy winter night in Eugene, 200 people crowded a gym to hear about this fledgling candidate, even though he wasn’t to attend.

Wince at his words if you must, but Dean restores a Democratic tradition. As one fiery Democrat from our past once said: “I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.” Washington’s hand-wringing Democrats should ask themselves: How would Harry Truman have responded if conservative Pat Buchanan had called him “wacko,” as he did Dean.

If Democrats truly are the Party of Thomas Jefferson, we should remember that in 1787 he wrote, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

Some said Jefferson was a troublemaker too.