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The Squeak

The strange passivity of Howard Dean.

The scene at the November 15, 2007 Democratic debate in Las Vegas was thick with the usual suspects—the candidates, the flacks, Wolf Blitzer, Dennis Kucinich's Amazonian wife. But there was someone who seemed out of place, a ghost of campaigns past: Howard Dean. 

The 2004 presidential candidate turned Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman had been strangely absent all fall, not just a ghost of an earlier campaign but seemingly the ghost of his former self. Among campaign junkies, suddenly glimpsing him up on stage shaking hands with John Edwards "set off a flurry of commentary," remembers one Democratic strategist close to the Clinton campaign. Adding to the aura of mystery, Dean appeared to have a fresh tan. "People e-mailed," the strategist adds, "and were like, 'Hey, hey! There he is!'"

Dean's relative silence this season is surprising, given the extraordinary energy he inspired in the last race. What's more, Terry McAuliffe, last cycle's DNC chair, raised the profile of the job during his tenure, creating a new model for the post. The kind of influence a DNC chair is supposed to exert has always been vague--Ed Rendell carped in 2000 that his job was to "basically take orders from twenty-seven-year-old guys … who have virtually no real-life experience." But McAuliffe set the modern standard by devoting himself to fund-raising frantically and fashioning himself into an almost talismanic presence on television. McAuliffe's aura of authority in the process was such that, shortly before the Iowa caucus, Dean even demanded McAuliffe stop other candidates from bullying him.

But, when Dean won the chair in 2005--backed by state parties who championed him as an insurgent outsider--he shied away from the spotlight. Partly, he was just following orders: Terrified by the Scream, the Washington establishment thought Dean was a hothead, a radical bound to say damaging things and ruin the party, and begged him to tone himself down. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid told him that he would be doing everyone a favor, as The New York Times put it, "if he would just stay out of sight …"

That wasn't hard for Dean to do. He isn't quite as constitutionally brash as the Scream suggested--its persistence as his defining legend makes him perhaps the most chronically misunderstood man in politics. More than that, those who know him say he was horribly humiliated by the way he lost in 2004, and he wanted to put that whole image behind him. "He's done a really great job," explains Joe Trippi, his one-time campaign manager. "I can't remember when he said something or did something--all the fears that people had about him were totally wrong."

But not everyone shares Trippi's sunny judgment. If Dean was ridiculed as tone-deaf during his '04 campaign, he is again hearing that taunt--this time not for a scream but for the absence of one. Democratic aides and strategists are grumbling that Dean hasn't stepped into the limelight to guide the primary season's intraparty fights--especially the ongoing one over Florida's and Michigan's delegates--to a smoother finish. "He wasn't aggressive enough, early enough, on Florida," says one unaffiliated Democratic strategist. To Dean, it must seem like he just can't win, even when he's doing what everyone wants him to do.

The biggest failure being pinned on Dean is the still-running war over the primary calendar. When state Democrats backed Dean for DNC chair, they hoped they would have an ally against establishment Washington. But, when the calendar skirmishes began, it became clear that Dean was willing to let the old guard on the DNC's Rules Committee call the shots.

Florida was one of the first states to endorse Dean in the race for the chair, and, when the Republican state legislature forced Florida Democrats to break the DNC's rules and hold their primary in January, they expected Dean would defend them. Unlike Michigan, state Democrats hadn't wanted to jump the gun; their Republican state House speaker pushed it, complaining that, without an early primary, the Florida delegates' only role at the convention would be to "wear funny hats." Florida Democrats hoped Dean would fight the punitive Rules Committee for their chance to keep half their delegates--as the Republicans did, and as allowed by official rules. Or, at least, that he would massage out some happy compromise, as they think McAuliffe could have done.

Instead, Dean tried to get Florida's Democratic leadership to deal with it. "Dean hates this part of the job," notes one DNC observer, and isn't keen to wade into internal DNC politics. In a call to Florida House Minority Leader Dan Gelber, "[Dean] just kept saying, 'You've got to find a way to stop this,'" says a Tallahassee insider whom Gelber told about the call. When the Floridians trooped up to Washington in August to plead for mercy before the Rules Committee, the DNC stripped them of all their delegates.

Adding insult to injury, a week later, under pressure from Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, the presidential candidates started pledging not to campaign in Florida or Michigan, although they would still do private fund-raisers. It was an extra slap that Florida Democrats thought Dean, 2004's crusading populist, should have frowned on, since it meant the Democratic candidates would meet with rich Floridians but spurn the average ones. But Dean made no comment. Gleeful Republicans found it a useful talking point, bashing the Democrats for "using Florida as [their] personal ATM."

"The idea that [Dean] sat back passively while [the four early-voting states] extorted the major candidates and said 'We'll hold our support from you if you campaign in Michigan and Florida' is unconscionable," says another Florida Democratic insider. "I'm not very happy with Mr. Dean," says Florida Democrats Vice Chair Luis Garcia. And Michigan and Florida are still waiting: The credentialing committee will decide this summer how to handle those states' delegates, but it is generally understood to be Dean's job to send stabilizing signals about what's going to happen.

Knowing how to handle the Florida meltdown was a game-theory nightmare, and Dean's decision to hew to disenfranchising rules set by a klatch of insiders can be defended for discipline's sake. But, more than revealing thestickler side of Dean, his choices in the primary battle tend to look hands-off or arbitrary-- like someone unwilling or afraid to confront the establishment that was once so afraid of him. "If Dean was going to try to stand up to Michigan and Florida, maybe he should have stood up to Hillary Clinton" when she began touting those states' votes, wails one member of Team Obama. It's a strange outcome for a man who wanted to transform Democratic politics as we know it with a dose of courage.

That's the thing about Dean's DNC. It hasn't been a failure-- except in contrast to the new order Dean himself ushered in with his explosive early success in '04. Dean defenders point out that the nearly $50 million Dean raised in 2007 respectably trumps the $43 million McAuliffe raised in 2003. But Dean's movement unleashed a torrent of money into the party, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are more than doubling their 2003 cash hauls. Similarly, Dean has made about the same proportion of his cash from small donors as McAuliffe did, around 60 percent, but his huge well of online small donors are now shattering fund-raising records for Barack Obama. Nor has Dean's DNC really tried to mimic his campaign's use of the Internet as a tool for organizing Democrats.

The money, the blogs, the obsession with dissing the ruling order--all of that, like the Scream, was never really Dean, and it became even less him after it brought him to grief. In a 2006 profile of Dean, The New York Times Magazine's Matt Bai suggested that Dean "was more the accidental vehicle of a movement that was already emerging." And, indeed, when Dean ran for DNC chair, he didn't promise to turn the party's website into another MyDD. His plea was for the "50 State Strategy," an idea that, to some Democrats, seemed un-futuristic for a trailblazer like Dean: The DNC would invest in the party's apparatus in once-ignored red parts of the country to seed a future Democratic revolution.

Despite the snorts of ridicule, the first data show it works. A study run by Harvard's Elaine Kamarck found that theHouse districts that received new DNC-funded staff posted a much bigger Democratic vote gain in 2006 than those that didn't. In Alabama, the state party's staff has ballooned from three to seven, and they credit the new DNC-funded guys with a big local win last month--97 percent white Cullman County elected its first black state legislator ever in a race the Republicans fought for hard.

But the perception that Dean's 50-state gimmick is a loser persists; Dean hasn't managed to win over the DNC's skeptical donor base. And, once there's a Democratic nominee, he or she will take over the DNC and Dean essentially will be out of a job. Obama--a 50-state kind of guy himself--might keep around the 50-State Strategy Dean wants to be his legacy, but Clinton would almost certainly axe it.

Recently, Dean hinted he might be ready to start chaperoning the primary battle. If there's no nominee by April, then "we're going to have to get the candidates together and make some kind of an arrangement," he said. But wouldthe candidates--especially Clinton, whose circle loathes Dean--agree to some deal brokered by the heretofore reclusive DNC chair? It almost, just almost, makes one feel nostalgic for the Dean of the Scream. If he'd been speaking at that volume all along, they might be more likely to listen.

This article originally ran in the February 27, 2008, issue of the magazine.