It’s Tuesday in the nation’s capital and the doctor is in.
Seated in his corner office at Democratic Party headquarters, Howard Dean is discussing the ways of Washington, a place he likens to middle school on steroids.
“There’s an enormous amount of attention paid to who went to what dinner and who sat next to who and who was in the paper and who wasn’t,” Dean says, arching an eyebrow. “It’s not a world I’m accustomed to.”
As chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the former physician may have one of the toughest jobs in politics: overseeing the party’s brutal nominating contest while laying the groundwork for the fall race against Republicans.
For a confirmed Washington-basher who once likened members of Congress to cockroaches, the job is that much tougher.
Dean ran for president as an outsider, lost the 2004 nominating contest, then won election to one of the most inside jobs in politics. His contempt for the Beltway culture seems scarcely diminished -- he spends as much time as he can away -- and the feeling is often mutual. In that sense, the doctor will never be in.
“Some may feel he’s not paying as much attention to the folks here in D.C. as they would like,” said party Secretary Alice Germond, who has spent nearly 20 years at Democratic headquarters. “The fact he’s not well-known at Washington’s watering holes may give rise to some of the sniping, which is perhaps unfair.”
Much of the criticism stems from the calendar fight involving Michigan and Florida. The states breached party rules by holding early primaries, so their delegates face banishment from the party’s convention. Though that seems unlikely, some fear the mere threat will hurt the party in November, and they blame Dean.
“He doesn’t have the long-term relationships or the clout in Washington that might have allowed him to negotiate a compromise,” said a Democratic strategist who works with the committee and requested anonymity to preserve that relationship.
Dean replies that he is merely following party rules. “There’s no power in the DNC to make people do things the rules don’t prescribe,” he says.
Dean has also been criticized for the prolonged scrap between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois. He has spoken privately with both camps about toning down the rhetoric, but it is unclear how Dean is supposed to unilaterally settle their nominating fight. As Charles Cook, an independent campaign analyst, pointed out, “There’s a big difference between being Democratic National Committee chair and being God.”
Step outside of Washington and assessments of Dean are drastically different, and far more favorable.
“I believe the Democratic National Committee should be an organization that is just what its name suggests, a national party,” says Steve Achelpohl, the Democratic chairman in strongly Republican Nebraska. “We cannot sustain ourselves, particularly in terms of presidential elections, if we only have 15, 18, 20 states in play. Dean stands for the proposition that we should try to play everywhere.”
The plan to do that, dubbed the 50-state strategy, is the fault line that divides Dean’s supporters and critics.
Since winning a four-year term as chairman in February 2005, the former Vermont governor has poured tens of millions of dollars into the state parties. Computer systems have been modernized, and voter files -- the information used to solicit money and support -- are constantly scrubbed, expanded and forwarded to Washington, building a national database that should greatly help the presidential nominee.
State parties have also worked to invigorate the Democratic brand, each hiring the basics: a field director, a data manager and a spokesperson. “We’ve basically gotten people to believe that they can be Democrats in Utah again,” Dean says. “That matters enormously.”
Local parties have also addressed specific needs. Texas Democrats hired bilingual field workers. The New Mexico party recruited a Native American organizer to work Indian reservations. In West Virginia, where the average Democratic voter is over 55, the party created a youth outreach position.
The investment, Dean and his supporters say, has already paid off. In Nebraska, for instance, the Democrats gained three legislative seats in 2006 and several local offices. In Mississippi, where the party hadn’t trained a precinct captain in a decade, the Democrats captured the Senate in 2007 and solidified control of the House. “I can’t say enough good things about the job he’s done,” Mississippi Democratic Chairman Wayne Dowdy said of Dean.
The 50-state strategy has been much less popular in Washington, where many ascribe Democrats’ local success to national trends. If anything, they say, Democrats would have gained more House seats in 2006 with better targeting. “They weren’t concentrating their efforts anywhere we really needed help,” said a former congressional strategist who did not want to be identified, to protect his boss’ relationship with Dean.
The dispute mainly involves money. At a time when Democrats have raised staggering sums, the DNC has disappointed even Dean fans. The committee has raised about $73 million for the 2008 elections, compared with more than $123 million for the Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. (By contrast, the Democrats’ congressional fundraising arm, which operates separately, has overwhelmingly out-raised its GOP counterpart.)
More worrisome to many Democrats is the cash on hand: $5 million for the DNC versus $31 million for the RNC. Ideally, they say, the national party could soften up Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive GOP nominee, while Clinton and Obama are busy throttling each other.
“I’d rather have those 2 1/2 , three days [Dean] took to fly to Alaska to have him raising money,” said a West Coast fundraiser, who did not want to be identified criticizing the chairman. “At this point, we need to focus on the places that are most winnable.”
Making his peace
This week the DNC began a modest ad campaign on national cable TV, attacking McCain’s support for the war in Iraq. The party has also moved to improve its finances by forming a joint fundraising committee with Obama. Talks were underway with the Clinton campaign about a similar arrangement.
Beyond money, the dispute over Dean’s 50-state strategy involves a larger disagreement over long- versus short-range thinking. The bias in Washington, which runs on two-year election cycles, tends toward the latter. Dean, not surprisingly, favors an approach more in sync “with the 99.3% of people who don’t live inside the Beltway,” he says.
Sniping aside, the erstwhile outsider appears to have made his peace -- or least an accommodation -- with Washington. He has good working relationships with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), both of whom opposed Dean’s bid for party chair. A Reid advisor, Jim Margolis, even sent Dean a note recently, praising his contribution to the Senate leader’s weekly strategy call. (Dean dials in from Vermont, where he spends weekends after traveling the country most of the week.)
Perhaps most important, after some early zingers that recalled his grenade-tossing presidential bid -- “Republicans are brain-dead,” “I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for” -- Dean has been comparatively restrained. That has spared Democrats what many feared most: the need to respond to the latest outrage from their chairman’s mouth.
“I’m now in the position of trying to be a unifying force,” Dean says. “And so saying controversial things that are going to crank people up all the time is probably not the most helpful thing.”
He is confident that the 50-state program will help in November, and acknowledges that his chairmanship will be measured by one thing: “Whether we win the White House or not.” But the real success will come, he says, when states like Nebraska and Mississippi are just as competitive as the perennial presidential battlegrounds of Wisconsin and Missouri. By then, Dean will have long departed Washington, but he professes not to care.
“If you worry about the credit, you’re not doing the job, and that’s especially toxic in Washington because everyone worries about the credit,” he says, with an air of doctor-knows-best. “I think one of the reasons we’ve been as successful as we have is we don’t give a damn about the credit.”