Howard Dean employs sarcasm more believably than political blarney, so when he flashed a thin smile on CNN last week and said, "This is the fun part of my job -- I get to bring these sides together," even a third-grader could figure out what the chairman of the Democratic National Committee meant.
What Democrats think of Howard Dean's handling of the Florida/Michigan delegate dilemmas often depends on how they already viewed him.
The carping from party veterans that Dean is to blame for the Florida and Michigan delegate disputes, or that he has been too passive or ineffectual to tease out a perfect compromise, exasperates aides and admirers who believe that Dean is being set up to be the fall guy, no matter what he does.
His defenders snipe that the same party insiders who tried three years ago to derail Dean's election as head of the party are the ones who now expect him to perform miracles to rescue the party from the negative consequences of the collective crackdown that failed to dissuade Florida and Michigan from holding primaries before February 5. The DNC's actions last summer turned the two states into beauty contests. Without campaigning in either state, Hillary Rodham Clinton defeated Barack Obama in Florida, where both appeared on the ballot, and in Michigan, where Obama had removed his name from contention. Despite recent talks in both Florida and Michigan to work out do-over primaries before the Democratic "window" for state contests closes in early June, serious technical hurdles -- and conflicting strategies between the two campaigns -- appeared at press time to have scuttled the possibility of new voting. Both states may appeal to the DNC's disciplinarians in hopes of getting at least some of their delegates seated.
Dean "did everything he could to try to stop this," says Moses Mercado, who was director of intergovernmental affairs for the DNC under Dean. "The reason we're here is that seven [presidential] candidates came to him and said, 'You have to figure this out and give this calendar reliability. It would have been easier for him to say, 'Screw it; we'll give them their delegates.' But this was a big leadership step to kind of hold everybody together. Dean said, 'We have rules.' "
In many ways, Dean seems an unlikely stickler for adhering to the national party's playbook, because he pursued the DNC job to dismantle a highly centralized party in favor of something different -- a strengthened grassroots influence in all 50 states. That's why a fair number of Dean's detractors throw up their hands when Dean -- the Iowa screamer of 2004 and self-described outsider -- acknowledges that the party could fall victim to internal divisions in November but betrays very little knock-heads urgency when he adds, "My job is to get us united."
Throughout his career, the chairman has had a reputation for balking when pressed to change course. And he is living up to that reputation. Dean still insists that Florida and Michigan were given ample warning about the consequences of misbehaving: They would lose all of their delegates. In his view, Democrats in both states miscalculated by daring the DNC to cave.
From Dean's perspective, according to people close to him, the national party's harsh punishment was the correct reaction, and it worked: Other states resisted the temptation to blow up the primary-season calendar by holding contests earlier than allowed under party rules. At the time the punishment was imposed, few political analysts imagined that the nomination could hinge on whether the Florida and Michigan delegations were seated. Instead, analysts generally assumed that a nominee would be chosen early in the primary season and would then magnanimously agree to include delegates from the two rule-breaking states.
Despite the renegade states' size and importance, Dean last year had plenty of company on the Rules Committee in backing the most severe sanction when each state moved its primary up, thinking it would be granted forgiveness later. And when it became clear that the Clinton-dominated Michigan and Florida delegations were boxed in by Obama's efforts to defend his narrow lead in pledged delegates, Dean began asserting that any compromise for the 366 delegates in question must honor the voters, must pass muster with both candidates, must conform to DNC requirements, and must not tap national party finances.
In February, Dean sounded content to let the impasse grind on until late August, when it could be brought before the DNC's Credentials Committee (subscription) -- a panel, the chairman has cheerfully emphasized more than once, that he does not control.
Then, when a few big donors started threatening to close their wallets if their states were not assured of convention seats, and pundits began grousing that Dean was AWOL in an emergency that could produce a rancorous, party-shattering convention, the chairman's willingness to wait until August began to look a bit like political malpractice. So Dr. Dean interrupted his fundraising travels to work the phones with each state party and to consult with other neutral graybeards, such as Al Gore, about the various do-over options that had been on the table for six months.
'His Acid Test'
Until now, the complaints from the Bill Clinton wing of the party about Dean's tenure as chairman have focused mostly on his signature determination to expand the party's reach in rural and Republican-dominated areas of the country. The former president's camp views Dean's "50-state strategy" as an eccentric drain on resources for too little gain in a presidential election year when the stakes are mighty. Even the party's 2006 triumph of wresting control of the House and Senate from the GOP did not quiet the naysayers, who sputtered that Dean's tight grip on the purse strings prevented the party from winning bigger.
After Election Night 2006, Dean beamed about "picking up seats in supposedly red areas," such as Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, and Nebraska. "We're finally beginning to become a national party again after 12 years," he declared. But James Carville, who ran Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, soon exploded, accusing the DNC of holding back millions of dollars it could have poured into tight races at the finish line. Carville complained to anyone who would listen: "They exercise this kind of timidity when we could have picked up another 10 seats, and then they come in and they say the state party chairmen agree with this." Not surprisingly, Clinton administration alums -- such as commentator Paul Begala and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois fire-breather who raised the money for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to win the House -- agreed with Carville.
Now the fights over how to deal with Florida and Michigan have become the latest tests of Dean's judgment and his skills. And although many party insiders continue to hold him at arm's length, the twists of the 2008 race could yet transform Dean into one of the most consequential Democratic Party chairmen in recent memory.
"Being DNC chair is never an easy job," said Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who guided the losing presidential campaigns of Vice President Gore and Sen. John Kerry and is neutral in this contest. "I think people will say Dean has done an excellent job, but his acid test comes over the next few months."
Although Dean's critics are tempted to blame the chairman for this year's high-stakes messiness, other observers think that the friction between old-guard insiders and new-guard outsiders has long been a hallmark of a restive -- some argue, dysfunctional -- Democratic Party. In that light, Dean is not a catalyst but a carrier. The state party chairmen and the grassroots Democrats agitated after the party's 2004 losses to devolve power from the Washington establishment. They wanted to break free of what they saw as the top-down myopia of an inbred pack of consultants, strategists, and pollsters. And Dean, embodying the new approach, arrived in Washington as an occupying force.
As a presidential candidate, he had campaigned to "take back America." Failing that, Dean flirted with the idea of a third party but settled on "taking back" a national party that had never quite embraced him as more than an iconoclastic small-state governor who burned through a then-astounding $40 million raised on the Internet without winning a single early primary. Within the party, feelings about Dean continued to run high.
"Howard Dean is a Rorschach test," explained new-media strategist Donnie Fowler of California, who challenged Dean for the chairman's job and considers himself an admirer. "How you felt about Governor Dean when he ran for president is how you view his success or failure as chair. You see in him what you're predisposed to see."
'Give Him A D-Minus'
If the former governor of Vermont has won few converts beyond the state party chairmen who elevated him and bask in the DNC's attentions, he is probably fated to receive scant credit if things go well for the party on Election Day. He will get plenty of the blame if 2008 -- a year widely predicted to be abysmal for the Republican Party -- leaves the White House in GOP hands.
Dean is rarely heralded as a particularly adroit communicator on television, or a reliably boffo fundraiser for the party -- skills widely viewed as essential for party chieftains. GOP leaders, sensitive to the conventional wisdom, kick Dean as an easy target, in contrast to his predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, who cultivated a reputation as a relentlessly charming pickpocket when it came to big-money donors. "I wouldn't be harsh if [Dean] was doing a good job; I'd be complimentary," said Republican strategist Ed Rollins, who helped guide former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's bootstrap presidential campaign. "Dean has done a terrible job of raising money. He's never on television. And when he is, he's nowhere near as effective as he should be, and he's not an operative, or a mechanic of politics," Rollins continued. "I'd give him a D-minus at best."
Yet those raps may be misplaced. Dean has kept his party -- even with all its distractions -- somewhat focused on hand-to-hand combat with President Bush and presumptive GOP nominee John McCain. He has been self-controlled and mostly gaffe-free. What's more, he has remained neutral in his cheerleading for the two Democratic presidential contenders who have stretched the contest into new territory. And he respectfully heeded private warnings from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to leave the policy jujitsu to them and to the party's presidential contenders.
When it comes to fundraising, Dean is on the road constantly, combining his 50-state ambitions for his party with appeals for cash. Trolling for money -- especially from hedge-fund managers and corporate titans -- is not Dean's gift, but he does the job. In the past week alone, he raised money in Alabama, Florida, and New York. He had joined forces in Nebraska with billionaire Warren Buffett on March 10 to help raise $1.3 million for the national party, said a DNC spokeswoman.
His supporters maintain that Dean is an "excellent fundraiser," who has tapped new lines of support beyond the urban areas that have long served as the party's ATMs. But his 50-state strategy has been expensive, and the outflow of dollars for an uncertain long-term payoff has unnerved some party elders.
By the end of February, the DNC had raised $60.5 million in the 2007-08 election cycle, compared with the Republican National Committee's $97.5 million, according to Federal Election Commission data totaled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The DNC had just $4.5 million in cash-on-hand, compared with the RNC's nearly $22 million. The fundraising juggernauts on the Democratic side continue to be the House and Senate campaign committees, which have far outstripped their demoralized GOP counterparts, and the Obama and Clinton campaigns.
Dean is credited with raising more money than any previous DNC chairman, including McAuliffe, in the post-election period that followed Kerry's defeat in 2004. The DNC raised more than $51 million in 2005, considered a record for a non-election year. That was a 20 percent increase over 2003, according to the DNC.
Dean introduced "Democracy Bonds" as a way to spur recurring, monthly donations from small contributors. And the DNC encourages matching donations from the grassroots to bring in first-time givers through the Internet. Both initiatives are considered more "friend-raisers" than sources of big dollars.
One puzzling aspect of the chairman's tenure is why the Net-roots boosters who injected rocket fuel into Dean's presidential campaign have been cool to the idea of pouring money into the national party's coffers. "I'm absolutely flummoxed by that," Fowler says. "A lot of them have abandoned him, including Democracy for America."
After his defeat in 2004, Dean established the political action committee Democracy for America, which is run by his brother Jim. The group, which says it has 675,000 members, aims to "reform and reclaim the heart of the Democratic Party," said Communications Director Daniel Medress, but it has not sent a dime to the DNC or to state parties for reasons of both law and logic. "We can't be seen as an arm of the Democratic Party," Medress explained.
The group has raised $152,000 since the start of this year and uses its website as a portal to channel donations directly to candidates it endorses. In the four years since Dean founded the group, Medress said, the DFA has raised more than $3 million for candidates around the country.
Party insiders are counting on the donor spigots to open for the DNC when a nominee is crowned, but the longer the contest remains in limbo, the more nervous Democrats become. And even if hundreds of millions of dollars pour in, as expected, the protracted contest for the nomination will leave a small window of time for effective spending against McCain and the GOP.
Fowler said that the DNC is talking to the Clinton and Obama campaigns now about readying the general election campaign apparatus in the states, even before the nominee is known. Normally, the national party supports the state party directors and their teams, who do outreach, door-to-door canvassing, and surrogate work on behalf of the party, while the nominee's campaign handles the state-based promotion of the candidate. In the absence of a nominee, the DNC has been putting some of that mechanism in place, "although they don't have any money to run the machine," Fowler said.
Party members generally applaud Dean for spending $12 million to update the party's Democratic voter files, which the DNC has shared with the states to help secure victories in congressional contests as well as state and local races. Dean invested so much in the nitty-gritty file project to try to overtake the RNC's acknowledged prowess when it comes to voter identification. Dean also added microtargeting data to the voter files.
In a more gossamer fashion, Democrats give Dean kudos for subtly influencing the 2008 contest -- through his early call to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, his successful use of Internet fundraising, and his outsider strategy that helped pave the way for Obama's much less combative appeal for a refashioned brand of politics.
It's less clear whether Dean's legacy will include his 50-state ambition to build the party. Both Democratic and GOP analysts seem to agree that if the Democrats lose this presidential election, or if Hillary Clinton is elected, the project will end. But if Obama defeats McCain, Dean's efforts may live on because the strategy will be seen as having helped in rural areas and red states.
"The jury is out on whether the 50-state strategy was the right thing to do or not. And it might be pure genius," says Republican strategist Dan Schnur, who lectures on political strategy at the University of Southern California and was McCain's communications director in 2000. "If Clinton or McCain is the president, you'll never hear about the 50-state strategy again."
As the primary season was about to begin, Dean failed to foresee that finding a fair way to seat the Florida and Michigan delegates at the 2008 convention could be a significant enough challenge to scar his chairmanship. Dean simply thought he was honoring the promises of his predecessor to breathe new life into a primary schedule dominated by two largely white, rural states.
On his way out the DNC door, McAuliffe had promised state leaders to reconsider the Iowa-New Hampshire setup. So Dean put together a commission in 2005 to suggest revisions. The DNC voted for the changes in December 2005, and Dean considered it an achievement to add the diversity of South Carolina and Nevada to the front end of the primary season. If Obama had done a bit better in Texas, some DNC staff members whisper, Florida and Michigan would have faded from view.
"It is absolutely true that Howard Dean, like the chairmen before him, inherited and tried to fix a nominating process that keeps getting broken and more broken," said DNC Secretary Alice Germond, a 40-year veteran of Democratic Party politics who calls the roll at the conventions. Dean, she added, had "no option" but to abide by the rules approved by the full DNC, and he tried to warn Florida and Michigan about the consequences before the Rules Committee voted in August to void their contests.
"Those states that may have hoped for a leader or a chairman who would have folded have been rather surprised in finding themselves in this particular environment," says Germond, a member of the Rules Committee who voted for the 100 percent penalties, the harshest possible punishment. "I do think that making rules and standing by them is just plain fairness, and that's just important for any party."
If Dean should be blamed for anything, it's probably hanging back too long before inserting himself into a concerted hunt for solutions, or maybe being too confident that a nominee would emerge by the time the Super Tuesday ballots were counted in early February, observers say. Florida and Michigan would have been easier to fix, in theory, if the DNC chairman had tackled the problem months ago. But that's pure speculation. The current mess is the result of a bad brew of parochialism, party politics, misplaced bets, and, most of all, a surprisingly close and protracted fight for the nomination. The underlying facts are too complicated to compete with the simpler story line that Dean is to blame.
When the national party upped the ante in its high-stakes posture game with Florida and Michigan, the chairman was willing to take responsibility, says lawyer Allan Katz of Florida, the only DNC member on the Rules Committee to vote against stripping Florida and Michigan of their delegates. At the time, Dean acknowledged that some party members were upset with the outcome. And Katz recalls Dean saying, "If you want to blame it on me, blame it on me. That's fine."
But what most Democrats want now isn't someone to blame -- it's a solution, or pair of solutions, that keeps the Michigan/Florida squabble from becoming a debacle that costs their party the keys to the White House.