Most conservative bloggers, from National Review to former Bush campaign webmaster Patrick Ruffini, seem positively giddy that Howard Dean is going to become the next DNC chair. They believe that the former Vermont governor’s far-left reputation and penchant for intemporate public outbursts will serve to further drive the Democrats out of the political mainstream. While I agree with their opinions of Dean, I don’t think his assention to DNC chair is an absolute loser for the Democrats. Indeed, it may be just what they’re looking for.
It is said that party chairs need to be one of two things: tacticians or visionaries. When your party is in power, a tactician is called for. RNC chair Ken Mehlman is not known for any ingenious political thought. Rather, he got the post for his fine job running the president’s re-election campaign. Fortunately, the Republican party doesn’t need a visionary as the party chair at this time. The party’s vision and agenda is set by the man in the Oval Office. The president’s agenda rules the day, for better or for worse, so it then becomes the party chair’s job to see that the president’s agenda is communicated to the public, and that pressure is applied to the legislature to get things done.
But for the party out of power, a visionary is more important. Lacking a singular elected authority (such as a president), parties out of power need the party leadership to be generals rather than footsoldiers, establishing a vision that the faithful can rally around. The GOP would be well to remember the days of Newt Gingrich and RNC chair (1993-97) Haley Barbour, whose visionary leadership (“The Contract with America”) lead to the current Republican majorities in Congress and to the defeat of the Clinton healthcare plan.
So is Howard Dean a tactician or a visionary? He has the potential to be both, or neither. Tactically, he changed the way political parties raise money by his internet campaign, but he was unable to translate that into votes on the ground (John Kerry defeated him in Iowa the “old fashioned way,” so to speak). The Democrats will need the “easy internet money,” as some have called it, to keep up with the GOP, but they’ll also need to be able to translate that into political mobilization. Dean was unable to do that during the primaries. We’ll see if he’s learned enough about tactics in the meantime to be able to do it as party chair.
On the visionary front, that’s a little easier. Dean has the party’s left-most flanks behind him. It’s up to him to decide whether or not to moderate his tone and risk losing his base, or to risk sticking to his guns and further marginalize the Democratic party. If Dean moderates, he’ll probably just become another middling tactician. Dean’s appeal is his energy and outspokenness. Without it, I’d say he is stuck.
If Dean sticks to his guns and the public doesn’t identify with it, he risks sinking the Democratic party for the forseeable future. On the other hand, if Dean and his left-wing internet friends succeed in driving both the party and American political discourse leftward, we have a whole new historical precedent to look at — that of Barry Goldwater. Like Dean, Goldwater was ridiculed by the political opposition (and some of the leadership of his own party) for his views. Also like Dean (potentially at least), Goldwater could be considered both a visionary and a tactician. Goldwater held to his conservative beliefs regardless of cost, and his 1964 campaign, despite being a massive failure electorally, pioneered the use of direct-mail marketing to raise funding and awareness. The similarities between Goldwater’s use of direct-mail and Dean’s use of internet fundraising are compelling, in that both tactics brought into the political process grassroots political elements far more ideological than the party leadership, and far more committed to the cause. As such, I would not be as quick to dismiss Dean and his left-wing blog buddies as other conservative bloggers apparently are. Let’s remember how we got here.
Suppose a massive scandal hits the Bush administration in the second term (second terms are notorious for that sort of thing — Watergate, Iran Contra, Monica, etc). Does that change the equasion? Does a Dean-lead Democratic party, suddenly “a choice and not an echo,” begin to look good to the general public? We conservatives better not get too complacent. If something goes horribly wrong in the second term, we could be looking at a Deaniac Reagan and the assention of Deanism as the dominant political paradigm within a generation.
Scary, isn’t it?
UPDATE: Dean to supporters: WE WON’T CHANGE!