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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Deanism Without Dean?

Now that Dean has left the race and the Democratic nominee will either be Kerry or Edwards (probably Kerry), the temptation will be great to just forget about Dean’s movement. Democrats who, six weeks ago, took Dean very seriously indeed now appear prepared to deny under oath that they ever did any such thing.
That would be a mistake. As a number of observers have pointed out, the fact that Dean couldn’t secure the nomination doesn’t mean the process of transformation he started within the Democratic party isn’t needed. For a useful sampling of opinion along these lines, see the mini-symposium on Dean on the American Prospect website, with contributions by Michael Tomasky, Simon Rosenberg, Garance Franke-Ruta and Nicholas Confessore and the article in Salon.com by Joan Walsh.
A lot of these authors make the same couple of points in different ways. Here’s the short course.
1. Dean did not make a real ideological or policy contribution to the party (though his willingness to stand up to Bush played a critical role in reviving the Democrats’ fighting spirit). Confessore well-summarizes Dean’s lack of ideological distinctiveness:
He put forward the least radical health-care proposal of any of the five major candidates running before New Hampshire. His ideas to expand federal aid for child care and college tuition were not much more than Clinton retreads. His best-known proposal — repealing even the middle-class tax cuts passed by Congress in 2001 and 2002 — was notably only for its stupidity, and he likely would have dropped it had he stayed in the race.
2. Dean’s real contribution lay in the process by which his campaign operated, especially via the internet: recruiting enthusiastic volunteers; raising huge sums of money from small donors; and generating a “movement” level of energy at the grassroots of Democratic party. By doing so, he showed the party what it was missing and how hollow Democratic party organization had become.
Therefore, if the party is to maximize its chance of winning in 2004 and, especially, build an effective majority party for the future, it will have to internalize and further develop the organizing methods of the Dean campaign. In a sense, Deanism is now a “third force” in the Democratic party, not clearly tied to either the traditional liberals or the orthodox New Democrats of the DLC. Harnessing that third force is key to the Democrats’ future; neither liberals nor New Democrats should delude themselves that things can now go back to the way they were. And, for that matter, neither should John Kerry–he will need the third force’s help and plenty of it to beat George Bush.

21 comments on “Deanism Without Dean?

  1. Name on

    Before Dean started becoming vocal the entire media and political establishment sat around grumbling to each other without the courage to stop the Rove-roller. It really was pitiful. It was Dean that made the Herculean effort ever so competently of parrying the Right-wing crackpots, calling a spade a spade, and refusing to let the millions around the country who had a responsibility to speak up sit around in
    I think that lost in all the noise is the fact this one single individual may have actually changed the course of US history from continuing to tread down the path of fascism back toward a course that will allow the country to eventually right itself. You seem to have forgotten that Dean would make comments that challenged the Republicans without fear of being called unpatriotic, which were followed by the stories that dared to break right after each comment – he really did break the ice that had frozen the media’s cojones.
    The supporters of the other candidates shouldn’t forget that those lily-livered Yes-men cowed to W’s every wish, squirming but nevertheless sticking to agenda items that wouldn’t offend him. Cowards. It was Dean who stood up and had the wits to be able to stay standing.

  2. Max on

    Hmm, I think EDM misses the point. It wasn’t just internet fundraising and meetups. It was the whole attitude of “we’re going to quit playing scared, and we’re going to take Bush on.”
    None — repeated NONE — of the other Democrats had (have) that spirit.
    Clark was the closest and even he seemed like a deer caught in the headlights, once the headlights got turned on.
    The “fighting spirit” goes beyind “policy” and “process,” and it’s the most enduring contribution of the Dean campaign.
    It’s also, we must never forget, is the very reason that establishment Dems tried to take him down — and now imitate his style.

  3. Lead Balloons on

    Nice obituary.
    Now that Ruy helped to ice Dean, he in effect admits that Dean was in policy terms an attractive and highly electable moderate. And, largely impervious to the tried-and-true Taxachusetts Waffler line of attack that will be attempted on Kerry.
    Kerry is a boring, mainstream, typical-politician choice. His Vietnam medals are valuable, and we need to ride them hard. But really — imagine Kerry without the medals. That’s my worry. Not much there.
    I hope to hell that Kerry can make it across the finish line, and I will work like heck to make it happen — no hanging back and feeling sorry for myself from this former Deaniac.
    But there’s no “oomph” coming from the candidate to help us carry him. The load just seems so much heavier now. That makes it all the more important for Dean supporters to rally ’round the flag: This candidate needs us. Badly.
    Ruy, you helped do a bad thing to a good man and a great politician. Now, move over, and let me put my shoulder to the wheel alongside yours.

  4. Rowdy on

    Huge Dean fan here. I’m not sorry he’s gone. The way I see it, he swam the moat, scaled the wall, took out some huge goons, lowered the drawbridge, and died with 48 arrows in his back. The other candidates hid behind a tree until the drawbridge fell. Now they are looting the castle which, it turns out, was not so well defended at all. Not so many loyal goons, scarecrows at every window, and very little usable ammo on hand.
    The way things were, it doesn’t matter who was the front-runner, that person was going to get taken out. Thank God we had ten candidates this year. And Thank God John Kerry had the nerve to play it so everyone, and I mean everyone, got a laugh at him while he hid behind the tree.
    You can analyze it all you want, but it all comes down to this. With or without Dean, there’s no way that the first guy into the evil castle was going to live to see the end of the battle.

  5. tripsarecopsem on

    Dean the man was pugnacious, inspiring, tough, and formidable. Wesley Clark was much the same. These outsiders brought mojo back into the mix. It wasn’t about policy, it wasn’t about process, it wasn’t about novel use of the Internet. It was about not being a cringing, triangulating machine politician. And the Democratic Party machine (assisted, admittedly, by the witless and irresponsible media) broke those candidacies. Fair enough, I guess — that’s what political parties do.
    Dean’s *movement* was about pent-up demand for something more. It was less about about people picking through policy statements or assessing position, and much more about the idea that Dean had the brains and guts to exert *leadership*. Instead of scampering around trying to appease voters, Dean’s approach was something like “well, dammit, here’s how things ought to be. We will try to work with you if you’ve got that famous confederate flag on your famous pickup truck, but we won’t kiss your ass. We won’t back down and we won’t back off.” Policy from principle, not from polls.
    Of course that was political suicide, as any Monday morning QB can explain, and many have.
    But that was what we Dean supporters wanted.
    Ruy, you do good work, and you really know what you’re talking about. I’m glad you’re here, and I look to this blog for solid longterm political analysis.
    But the Democratic Party that you so obviously love bears a huge amount of responsibility for knuckling under, for caving, for abdicating, for letting the nascent prefascist movement that has pretty well engulfed the Republican Party have its way.
    I’m an independent. Nothing will stop me from voting a straight Dem ticket come November. But I’ll be doing it because it’s really damned urgent. I suppose wanting to feel really good about doing so is childish and unreasonable.

  6. Barney on

    If this so-called movement is so successful how come it can’t even get above 20% of primary voting Democrats to cast votes for its candidate. If there are so many discontented liberals just waiting for affirmation from the democratic party, where the hell were they? Now’s the time guys.
    Deanism’s contribution to the political process is that they were the first to successfully do fundraising on the internet, period. The rest is naive, unfocused, bloggy schoolkid clubbiness. The smartest members of “the movement” like John here, are forced to come up with reasons never articulated by their leader to try to define it as something more than a Howard Dean fan club.
    Success in politics is getting votes or pressing an agenda. They didn’t get votes and they have no agenda.

  7. laura on

    I started out withDean because he was one of the few Democrats at the national level ( besides Byrd) who had the guts to tell the truth and expose Bush’s lies. Almost the entire Democratic leadership in Congress rolled over and played dead. Dean stood up to Bush’s bullying before polls or events made it “safe”. I think that’s his legacy –the idea that leadership consists of teaching people what the issues are and what positions we Democrtats will take and voicing clear policies based on clearly stated principles. The method he used to spread his message was great and will be imitated. Unfortunately I’m not certain promenent Democrats are ready to act on his message and start showing real leadership.There’s still a tendency to check the polls and to tip toe carefully around issues giving messages that are deliberately indistinct. Adopting Dean’s methods won’t stregnthen the Democratic party over the long haul unless Democratic politicians also adopt his definition of leadership.

  8. BrilliantIdiot on

    Let me just add:
    I wasn’t accusing you of threatening to bolt. But it’s a commonly stated threat among those in the blogosphere (who I think are highly unrepresentative of most people, anyway, and unaware of this fact) They’re upset that their candidate lost and how he lost; many seem think something was stolen from them. I think this happens again and again in political movements, it’s nothing new.
    reform doesn’t happen until the momentum is overwhelming. This isn’t the time…but you could argue that this wasn’t even a test, because the Dean campaign, as Ruy summarized, wasn’t centered on reform. The reform element was sublimated and inferred by supporters. It wasn’t sold as a reform candidacy.

  9. BrilliantIdiot on

    That’s understood, of course, but there’s a narrowness of vision and petty bitterness in making such a comment about Kerry, who is the overwhelming choice of the broad sweep of the party. A small faction must not attempt to hold the larger part of the party hostage if that faction is highly unrepresentative of the views of the broader public.
    You’re upset about the sleaze. Most people aren’t enough to change their votes. Most people expect a certain level of corruption in the process, and know that there are no easy solutions. Deal with it. I’ve accepted the fact that dishonesty, violence, unfairness are common in this world. Politics is no exception. Why? That’s another conversation. It just IS. Indeed, the willingness and ability to play hardball is essential to defeat Bush. If you can’t play hard enough to win the Dem party nom, you don’t have a shot in the general. That’s the brutal Darwinism of politics. It’s always been that way. Maybe when the human race evolves some more it will be different.
    I think the party will evolve in such a way as to please most of you in this faction. But part of being in a coalition is understanding how the tastes and preferences and beliefs of people other than yourself must not be condemned. If you believe in X, and most people don’t, it’s childish to say, OK, I’m leaving. Your task in this situation is to persuade, to educate the coalition for the greater good, not threaten to walk out.

  10. John on

    BrilliantIdiot: The Kerry comment was not nonsense. Try talking to the Dean supporter crowd. As the entire post was about them/us, I assumed that was implicit. I wasn’t referring to the entire sweep of Democratic primary voters, obviously. But given a lot of the sleaze Kerry ran, it’s a hard sell to the Dean crowd. That form of behavior is part of what people were against.

  11. BrilliantIdiot on

    John, your comments were great, I thought, except for the nonsense about Kerry being the least liked candidate next to Lieberman. Least liked by whom? The voters? Results overwhelmingly indicate otherwise.
    I would also say that poltics could also be center-left other than center-right in the current system – if indeed enough public sentiment shifted. There’s no evidence that there’s an unrepresented oversized signif. left of center nationwide majority out there. It’s too close to 50-50. But I think trends are in our favor; much of Ruy’s work is in this vein.
    The comments/summary by Ruy on the contributions of Dean and the relative importance of the blogoosphere are right on the money, IMO.

  12. JeffA on

    I have to echo John’s sentiment and take issue with Ruy’s assertion that the sterile process of blogging, fundraising from smaller donors, and grassroots organization was the key lesson from Dean’s campaign. I think it risks swapping the cart and horse of means and ends.
    Yes, the blogs, e-mails, and meetups created a large and cheap infrastructure for communication and coordination of huge numbers of individuals disenchanted with the W years.
    Yes, the same organizing methods enabled Dean to set records in fundraising and to do it with smaller gifts from more people.
    And yes, the ease of communicating and coordinating helped bring thousands back into the fold that had either left or never come into the political process before.
    But the blogs, e-mails, and meetups were not the movement itself, they were simply the method. The movement sprang from suddenly having a process whereby that distant, impersonal political system could actually hear the voice of the little guy, particularly when that voice became amplified by a common call echoed by thousands of others. The process created a community that grew because it reinforced among its members that they had a place and a purpose and a means of participating and contributing.
    The process worked to create this unprecedented movement because there was a genuine give and take–not just of dollars, but of ideas, advice, and input. Whether or not any of Dean’s policy proposals were radical or even distinctive, those who supported him felt that he was speaking to and for them… not just at them.
    The ‘process’ was the aqueduct that carried the water of those ideas, input, and yes, dollars to feed the movement. But if you build the best of aqueducts in a desert, it will still be lacking for water.

  13. LeeMelon on

    The bottom line response to reactionary Republicans concerning marriage, the Constitution, and the state of the Union: How should we expect to win a war on terror and restore an economy as you passionately look to manufacture enemies here at home, and among our most consistent allies abroad? Like Mario Cuomo says, we’re all in this together.

  14. Dan Perreten on

    I agree with the emerging conventional wisdom that Dean’s contributions were process-oriented rather than substance, and that the process is important. I want to raise the subject of gay marriage and look at it through the lens of “Deanism.”
    Some on the left (Josh Marshall and Atrios in the blogosphere) are now arguing that this issue may cut against Bush, but a lot will depend on how each side behaves going forward. It’s a bad hand for Rove, one that he wishes he didn’t have to play, but you can be sure that he will play this bad hand as well as he can.
    What will the Democratic leadership do? So far, I’m not encouraged. On the one hand, you’ve got Gavin Newsom all over television last night fighting the good fight. On the other hand, you’ve got . . . who? I realize that Kerry and Edwards are in a difficult spot, but I thought their responses were tepid, especially Edwards’. I don’t expect them to be as far out there as Newsom, but having a clear, strong message is key; instead, on television they both looked unprepared and uncomfortable. In their written responses, both were smart to point out that this is a distraction maneuver on Bush’s part, both were smart to argue for states’ rights and leaving the Constitution alone, but neither made any positive argument for equality or civil rights. As for the rest of our national leaders, Pelosi has a spine, but how do you think Daschle will vote on this if it comes up in October?
    In fact, that’s exactly what I worry about: for the next few months, Republicans will be out there with their clear, strong, simple message, Dems will be ducking the issue and coming across as wafflers. The vote on this will come up just before the election. The Republicans will be able to keep most of their troops in line, and they’ll get just enough nervous Dems who are up for re-election. Iraq war resolution redux. Defense of Marriage Act redux.
    Public opinion is incredibly squishy and malleable on this issue: good leadership on either side could sway the public and break the 45-45 split. Who is going to heed the lessons of Deanism and take a strong stand here?

  15. PhillyGuy on

    Having been one of the first 400 people to sign up for Dean on MeetUp.com (it eventually grew to over 188,000 members), I can assure you that “Deanism” happened first and foremost because of George W. Bush, then Dean himself, then the methods. As it turned out, Dean was the wrong messenger, but the message was, loud and clear, stand up to Bush and be not afraid to express your beliefs as non-conservatives. After that, it was simply a matter of taking advantage of the technology and creativity of his grassroots. It was truly as simple as that.

  16. Sara on

    Yes, Once Kerry sews it up, then the issue of relating to the elements outside his campaign needs to be pushed on him in a straightforward fashion. I doubt if he will adopt Dean tactics on the Blogs — pre-primary is not pre-general election, but what needs demanding is a blog strategy that meets the requirements of next summer — and then next fall. And the strategy needs to be mutual, satisfy the requirements of a winning campaign, and at the same time allow the greater blogging world to enlarge their political impact.
    It’s worth reminding Kerry that the first great progressive internet action was “Censure and Move-on” — which came into being when Bill Clinton needed some outside help. Today, Move-on is nearly establishment. It is in the sense that Soros has heaped their plate full — but it is still rocky in the sense that the ad contest was smearable. Kerry has to invent his own approach, but as someone who really wants to win this thing smartly, I know that experienced hands will have to sort out the stuff that will work from the stuff that could really backfire.
    But because the blog world is what it is, perhaps we could be independently creative and figure how to generate the necessary votes. (and that is what it is all about<)

  17. John on

    What no one seems to get is that process is far more important than ideology. What ideologies make it to the table are defined by the process.
    For example, our structure forces a “mushy middle” to center right more often than not, due to the two party system. In turn that two party sysem in caused by the electoral college and “winner take all” voting. Even within that structure, a simple process change like IRV would cause huge spillovers.
    Look at the primaries. Had there been IRV, most likely Edwards would have killed in a landslide, as he was almost every camp’s second choice. The use of negative ads would plummet, as candidates couldn’t afford to raise their own unfavs doing it. A Third Party would be viable due to the “second choice” factor.
    Of course, most of that isn’t in the interests of either party’s leadership, so they won’t touch it, even though it would be in the interests of the voting public.
    Besides, there was a quasi-ideological component sharedby the disparate folks involved. POGG. Peace, Order, and Good Govt. for those of you who don’t know Canadian Politics. That’s why moderate changes to programs were acceptable.
    Things that would be on the Dean crowd’s radar? Massively increasing the time blackout for public officials to shift to lobbying. Like making it a 5 years or more. Again, party leaders wouldn’t like that, because it kills the cash out for them…and so what?
    Election reform would be big. The aforementioned IRV would work. Putting teeth into campaign law so that what’s now a wink and nudge would equal serious jail time (Get why Kerry is the least liked of the other candiadtes after Liberman? Or do I have to mention the “Torch” and that 527?). Elections are the life blood of a democracy/republic, and this casual corruption is effectively intoducing the Ebola virus into it. Lowering the individual donation caps to $1K or below, while putting a multiplier on the first $100 would be huge with the crowd.
    Applying the existing laws equally and sanely would be big. Why can you write off a $200K cabin cruiser loan as a “second home”? Why do the more corecive fair labor laws not apply to upscale professionals and the corporate suite (and for that matter, if Congressmen like them so much, why don;t the apply to their own offices?)? Why does a rich punk with a few grams of coke get a light sentence, while a poor kid with crack gets locked away? What’s up with specialized tax laws that end up being a gift to Senator Blowhard’s major contributor? Why is Social Security broke, yet we have a FICA tax cap for high incomes?
    These are the sort of issues that will resonate with the Dean crowd. But since they hit directly at the class which makes up the leadership of the party, they like to pretend there weren’t any issues, and it was just some personality thing.
    Oh, and BTW. The Dean crowd isn’t so dumb as to think that a blog, some platitudes, and a pretense of interest means anything. We’re very, very aware that when the party leadership see us, they see a shiny new ATM that spits out $50s or ground labor. Sorry, but unless you care to address some of those issues and processes, we ain’t falling for it.

  18. Wagster on

    The co-opting of the Dean methodology started in the primaries. Most obviously, all the candidates adopted a more strident, less compromising Dean-like tone. But I know from my own participation in the Clark campaign that we aped quite shamelessly many of the techniques that the Dean people pioneered: the blog, the handwritten letters, the calls from volunteers’ cel phones, the meet-ups. I hope the Kerry people were taking notes too, but from news accounts and what I can pick up online, I’m not sure how hip they are to a new way of going about politics.
    You might question how effective these techniques really are politically, and you might be right. What I don’t think you can question is the importance of the new class of small donors Dean brought into politics. Mark Shields was on the tube the other day, and he said this development has saved the soul of the Democratic Party because now it might no longer be dependent on corporate and special interest contributions. I agree. But I have to add that there is a connection between the more horizontal, empowering structure of the Dean campaign and those contributions… that people gave because they felt they were part of a community, that they had an ownership stake in the campaign. If the Democratic Party reverts to the top-down habits of yesteryear, that class of small donors and their liberating potential may well disappear.
    The Dean campaign is dead but (I pray) long live the Dean way!

  19. Erik on

    Kerry must stop alienating the blogogsphere. His indifference towards this new movement is exactly why these people left the process to begin with. He must put his ego aside and embrace Dean and the blogosphere. We are on our way to seeing the democratic majority emerge. In order to see this through to fruition you embrace and thank those who put the fighting spirit back into the Democratic Party.


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