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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Chairman Dean

Now that Howard Dean is certain to be elected the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, I’ve been getting some emails asking me if I’m going to attack the guy and generally create a new excuse for people to ignore everything else I say. I’m amused that anybody thinks my opinion on this particular subject matters at all, but actually, I’m happy to congratulate the Doctor and wish him the best of luck in a tough, important, and often thankless job.
Like supporters of John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, John Edwards, Wesley Clark, Dennis Kucinich, Joe Lieberman and Al Sharpton, I opposed Governor Dean’s presidential candidacy. (For the record, I was a Kerry supporter from the beginning).
Dean’s candidacy for DNC chair has been a different matter. I did a post back in November wondering why he wanted the job. I also suggested that the DNC was pretty much an empty fortress where there wouldn’t be any resistance to Dean-style ideas about netroots-based fundraising and organizing, or for that matter, a fighting partisan tone (out-Republican-bashing Terry McAuliffe would be a pretty tall order). And I continue to believe that those Deanies who think his chairmanship represents some sort of revolution are going to be disappointed by the warm welcome they will get over on South Capitol Street, where the only heads available to put on a pike will be those of the failed political consultants who have (I hope) received their last checks from the DNC.
But none of that really matters. The Doctor’s campaign for the party chairmanship focused on the need to broaden the party’s financial base, tap the activist energy so evident in 2004, and rebuild threadbare state party infrastructures nationwide. And he has consistently said he won’t engage in policy or ideological fights that will get in the way of that task, usurp the policy-making role of elected officials, or disturb party unity.
So I sincerely wish him well. And I join those Democrats who are steeling themselves to fight against a definite and long-planned GOP effort to drag up and exaggerate every controversial thing Dean said last year to paint Democrats as a party lurching towards the left. I’m sure the Doctor knows he will be playing by a different set of rules than previous party chairs–you might call them Hillary Rules, insofar as every word out of his mouth will be distorted and exploited by the GOP to reinforce right-wing stereotypes. Like Sen. Clinton, he will have to measure his words far more than is rightly fair, and like Sen. Clinton, he might want to throw a few counter-stereotypical comments into his public utterances to surprise people and set the record straight.
Above all, the changing of the guard at the DNC should be an occasion for Democrats to remind themselves they can walk and chew gum at the same time. Yes, we need an energized activist base, but we also need to expand that base into hostile or indifferent territory until we get a majority. Yes, we need more (and more broad-based) money and better mechanics, but we also need a winning message. And yes, we need to reform the party, but that won’t matter if we don’t stand as a party for reform ideas which address the weaknesses (above all on national security, values and culture, and the role of government) that unnecessarily keep voters from supporting our candidates–ideas which enable us to expose the inner rot of the Republican ascendancy.
The DNC’s unique role is to deal with activists, money, mechanics, and party reform, and Howard Dean brings a strong resume and considerable enthusiasm to those tasks. Expanding the base, developing a winning message, and articulating a progressive reform agenda–those are tasks in which all Democrats must participate, and where the main impetus must come far from South Capitol Street, out there in the heartland and its electoral battlegrounds.

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