Dean worked to corral Democrats in ’08 . . . but now?

By Chuck Leddy
October 4, 2010

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With the Tea Party movement booming on the right, Democrats are facing an “enthusiasm gap,’’ which many predict could cost them control of Congress come Election Day. Yet Democrats have not always been so alienated from their base.

In “Herding Donkeys,’’ Ari Berman, political correspondent for The Nation, chronicles how the Democrats’ harnessing of grass-roots activism ultimately propelled Barack Obama to the White House in 2008. Berman traces the party’s electoral gains in 2006 and 2008 to Howard Dean, who as a presidential hopeful in 2004 used digital technology to expand the base of the entire party. Berman describes how Obama adopted and built upon this same strategy to defeat John McCain.

Berman’s voluminous reporting, based on interviews with campaign insiders, tracks how Dean first embraced this “netroots’’ strategy as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Dean was an outsider who had become disillusioned with both the regionalization of the party (strong in the Northeast and Midwest, but conceding much of the South and West to Republicans) and its tendency to seek the safe middle ground by accommodating Republican ideas such as welfare reform, deregulation, and the war in Iraq. As chairman of the DNC, Dean encountered a party controlled by Washington insiders and veteran political consultants, none of whom he much liked. And they loathed him.

Dean decided to make huge changes in the party’s ossified structure. “Dean had a simple message,’’ Berman writes, that “there were Democrats everywhere . . . and under his leadership the party would travel to all fifty states to find them. No longer would Democrats be a party of eighteen states dominated by a small circle of well-endowed political consultants.’’ Moreover, Dean helped pioneer a “small donor revolution’’ that would use the grass roots to match the traditional “big donor’’ power of Republicans. And it worked. Berman’s detailed reporting shows how Dean’s “fifty-state strategy’’ energized long-forgotten Democratic activists in supposed “red states’’ like South Carolina, Colorado, and Indiana.

Dean revamped the DNC’s fossilized information systems. He “began overhauling the DNC’s relationship with its online constituents, redesigning the website, conversing over blogs and e-mail, making sure grass-roots activists knew their state party officials and vice versa.’’ Dean also used social networking tools to build a powerful political network for Democrats. Additionally, he provided DNC money to cash-strapped local Democratic organizations. These actions broadened the Democratic base and brought many supposed red states into play for Obama.

Berman shows how Obama leveraged Dean’s fifty-state strategy and energized grass roots to run an insurgency campaign that would defeat first Hillary Clinton and then McCain. So effective was Obama’s grass-roots strategy that McCain would use his vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, to bolster his own grass-roots standing.

Yet after Obama’s landmark victory, Dean was shoved aside, receiving neither credit nor a place in the cabinet. Berman describes how many activists have since become disillusioned with President Obama, believing his relationship with the grass roots is a one-way affair: happy to have their votes and money, but not to serve their interests. Berman bemoans that Obama has governed with Beltway insiders such as Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers: “The decision to stock his administration with weathered fixtures of the Beltway establishment and rely on a much-despised legislative branch to slice and dice his ambitious agenda’’ has frustrated the grass roots, Berman writes.

Whether Obama, or any Democrat, can govern using the grass roots (beyond just winning elections with them) is still unclear, but Berman asserts Obama has not even tried. And he may yet pay the price in November.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

HERDING DONKEYS: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics

By Ari Berman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pp., $26