Keywords: Matt Bai; Howard Dean; scream; Democratic Party; Republicans; Michael Lerner; Rahm Emanuel; The West Wing; Josh Lyman; Frank Rich; The Plan; John Kerry; Hillary Clinton; Iraq War; gerrymander; proportional representation.
Matt Bai has a fascinating piece, "The Inside Agitator," in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine about Howard Dean (see photo), who is now the national chairman of the Democratic Party. It is hard to love the Democrats nowadays — for ages, in fact — because they have little sense of direction. I’d throw up my hands about US politics if I could, but I have to live with the outcomes as long as I’m on this planet, and I’m not in a hurry to leave.
I have to deal with what’s really there. And the most promising realistic option is to hope for a Democratic electoral victory. Hence my respect for Dean.
Certainly I admired him when he was running for president. He and Kucinich were just about the only Democrats who opposed the war against Iraq, but of course he was defeated in some primaries and by (I’ve learned from Wikipedia) some flawed technology. In addressing a roaring crowd, he yelled to make himself heard, but the microphones filtered out the crowd noise and made it appear that he was just yelling out of anger. His inappropriate “scream” made him look so emotional that he lost credibility. I hadn’t heard that explanation before.
Still he managed to become chairman of the party and is undertaking some dramatic and risky reforms. Over the years, the party has come to focus almost all its energy and resources on winning certain key states, while ignoring the others where the outcome is almost a foregone conclusion. As a result, the few Democrats who live in solidly Republican states feel disenfranchised, excluded from political power. In his presidential campaign, Dean attracted much of his support from the grassroots, largely via Internet and Meetup discussions. He lacked support from the party’s elite, but a lot of zeal from bloggers and youth. His experience in dealing with these excluded Democrats made him realize that it is necessary to re-establish the party in all 50 states. He has been going around visiting regions where no important candidate or party official had set foot for 25 years.
Naturally, this strategy ticks off the mainstream insiders of the party, who claim that he is seriously jeopardizing their opportunity for a victory this November. Both Bush and the Republican-led Congress are exceedingly unpopular now, and from the conventional point of view, this is the most opportune moment in years to win, at least if the party pours all its resources into the crucial districts. Dean knows this, but is doling out his funds with the long-term goals in mind. He is hiring young managers in every state and giving them free rein to campaign for local as well as federal offices. There may be some disappointment in the short term, but he believes that in another few years there will be a vigorous party organization in every one of the fifty states.
In this, Dean actually may be taking lessons from the Republicans, who also built up a more vibrant party over the years by establishing organizations in most regions of the country.
According to Bai, Dean has also learned not to write off voters who seem to be dyed-in-the-wool Republicans. Some studies have shown that rural voters, for example, are oriented more in terms of values than specific policies. Therefore, Dean goes around using faith and values rhetoric that makes Bai wince. For example, Dean (who is not known to be particularly religious) astonished a religious Latino audience about gay rights by saying, “…Equal rights under the law is not something that can be abridged by the Democratic Party because it’s really the law under Jesus Christ.”
Probably that argument would startle most other faithful Christians, but I rather like intention behind it. I am solidly aligned with Michael Lerner, who argues that liberal Democrats have excluded from their midst people whose values are spiritual, forcing them to turn instead to the Republican Party if they want to address their religious and political concerns in the same discourse. I’ll gladly welcome outspoken Christians and any other devout group back into my own political crowd and I’m pleased to see Dean issuing that invitation.
I was surprised to learn that one of Dean’s main opponents is Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who had been Bill Clinton’s deputy chief of staff. (Emanuel was the real-life character on whom The West Wing’s Josh Lyman was modeled. In that fictional series, Lyman was astutely pragmatic, but in time he became the aide of a remarkably idealistic Democratic presidential candidate whose political principles resemble those of Howard Dean but who, unlike Dean, was elected. It is amusingly ironic to think of Emanuel/Lyman as a hard-nosed party insider in a bitter struggle against a visionary party chairman.)
And perhaps Emanuel is not just opportunistic. As a centrist, he has written a new book with Bruce Reed: The Plan: Big Ideas for America. According to a review by Frank Rich, Emanuel and Reed see all the Democratic candidates as sharing a few common political objectives: universal health care, energy conservation, universal citizen service along the Peace Corps/AmericaCorps model, a reduction in income inequality, and a restoration of constitutional protections of rights. Those objectives sound inspiring enough to restore considerable faith on my part in the Democratic Party.
Is Dean’s 50-states approach the best way to bring the Democrats back to power? I’m not so sure. It is simplistic to assume, as Bai seems to do, that the allocation of resources will determine the party’s fate with the electorate. True, the Republicans have lost credibility, but they have other advantages that may make an enormous difference. For one thing, they are already in power, and voters tend to re-elect incumbents. Besides, they have been in a position to gerrymander districts greatly in their own favor. And finally, there’s the history of the Democrats’ own miserable record with respect to the Iraq War. Nothing that John Kerry said last time could erase his own initial support of the war. And Hillary Clinton, who leads the next pack of probable presidential candidates, still to this day his not called for withdrawal of US troops from Iraq — much less acknowledged that she was wrong in agreeing to send them there in the first place.
With such uninspiring candidates, the Democratic Party cannot inspire much enthusiasm among voters. The best Dean can probably do is to induce many of us to choose the lesser evil.
To gain a heathy democracy, Americans need a wider range of choice than between Democrats and Republicans. Only proportional representation can alter political realities in the United States enough to make a real difference. Regrettably, neither Howard Dean nor any other top political leader is about to endorse that kind of constitutional change.