Alex Massie

The Doctor is Out

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The Economist's Democracy in America blog raises a good point: whatever happened to Howard Dean? That is, why does the former chairman of the DNC receive so little credit for the party's resurrection? And why is he not being considered to be Secretary for Health and Human Services, given that, as governor of Vermont, he did assemble a track record on healthcare reform?

Dean's eclipse is partly a matter of personality clashes: he has feuded with both Rahm Emanuel and David Plouffe. Certainly Dean has an abrasive, even arrogant, side to his character that hasn't helped him; nor has he ever really been trusted by the party's establishment. And yet Obama owes Dean more than is sometimes recognised.

Though John McCain had made tentative use of the internet in his ill-fated 2000 campaign, it was Dean's 2004 run for the Democratic nomination that truly showed how transformative the web could be. The enthusiasm Dean's long-shot campaign generated took the candidate himself by surprise. I remember interviewing Dean in June or July 2003 and he confessed he had no idea who these kids were, nor really why they were so passionate about his candidacy. Everything was a bit of a surprise. But the use of Meetup and other web tools, created a sense of momentum that at one point made Dean the front-runner for his party's nomination.

Opposition to the war was part - indeed, much - of it of course. Dean helped seal his fate when he commented that the arrest of Saddam Hussein, while welcome, had not made the United States any safer. This was not a message the country wanted to hear in December 2003. That subsequent events would suggest Dean was more or less correct proved immaterial. The damage had been done.

As it was by the fact that the students and activists converging upon Iowa and New Hampshire to campaign for Dean may have done as much harm as good. I remember wondering how effective canvassers sporting "Wiccans for Dean" badges would be in flinty, freezing New Hampshire. That was after "The Scream" of course, when Dean came across on television as a deranged gerbil, clearly unfit for the party's nomination. (Inside the hall, it was different and so loud that Dean had to shout to be heard. As so often, perception trumped everything else.)

Nonetheless, the Dean campaign showed what was possible, even if its execution left a lot to be desired. There were so many Deaniacs in New Hampshire, for instance, that the campaign couldn't find enough for them to do. In that respect, the Obama campaign learnt from Dean's experience: it was better prepared, more focused, more disciplined and, of course, had the advantage of a better candidate.

Dean did something else, however: he insisted that Democrats should not be afraid of being, well, Democrats. He told the party it was  time to stand up and fight and show some backbone. Just as importantly he recognised that Democrats had to compete everywhere; there should be no no-go areas. Hence his much-derided line that the party had to do more to appeal to white men with Confederate decals on their pick-up trucks. Still, whatever this lacked in nuance, it gained in veracity: the Democratic party had to rebuild itself from the grass-roots up. That meant challenging in all fifty states, renewing the Democratic party's moribund organisation even in reliably Republican states. This too, I think, helped Democrats believe in themselves again.

If the 2004 election was a Battle of the Base, decided by which side could maximise turnout from its core supporters, the 2008 election was much more about capturing the centre-ground and persuading wavering voters to support Obama or McCain. It was an outreach election. Dean realised the importance of this before many other party bigwigs. For that too he deserves some credit.

And Dean also inadvertently helped Obama win the Iowa caucuses. The Clinton campaign assumed that the Obama campaign was, essentially, not that different from Dean. All this effort spent on enthusing young voters would surely be a waste of time and money; after all, everyone knows the kids won't vote. Right? Wrong. Obama's campaign took elements of Dean's template and dramatically improved upon them. Dean had essentially been making it up as he went along; Obama knew what he was doing, in part because his campaign was able to absorb the lessons of Dean. Hillary's campaign did not.

Obama's victory in Iowa gave him the momentum he needed to win South Carolina, rendering Hillary's New Hampshire triumph less important than it might otherwise have been. Suddenly black voters in South Carolina could see that Obama was a real, live candidate whom white voters were also prepared to support. Consequently, Hillary's support in the African-American community collapsed and from that point on she was always chasing the game...

It would be an exaggerration to say that without Dean Obama could not have won, but the Doctor's role in Obama's success and, more widely, the regeneration of the Democratic party ought not to be forgotten either.

Not that any of that will help him get a job in the new administration.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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