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Being Howard Dean

HOWARD DEAN seems assured of becoming the Democratic party chairman when the Democratic National Committee votes Feb. 12. Is this a good or bad thing for the Democrats?

Conservative Democrats think it's a disaster. One Republican operative was quoted, (inevitably) "It's a scream!"

But there's a lot more to Dean than that one awful moment in Iowa, and the real story is rich and complicated.

Dean surprised Washington insiders showing that he had a great deal of early support among state party chairs. These people are not diehard lefties or fools. They want to win.

Dean, true to his reputation as an organizer, relentlessly worked the phones and ended up impressing many party leaders who hadn't really known him but who share his perspective that the party must be rebuilt on the kind of grass-roots energy Dean showed while his presidential star was rising.

Also, Dean really didn't have serious competition. Two kinds of people typically become Democratic Party chairs -- tactical operatives and money men. The successful ones bridge both worlds and also bridge the party's liberal base and its business centrists.

Dean's rivals had either too much baggage (Clinton confidant Harold Ickes), too narrow an appeal (former Texas congressman Martin Frost, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb), were too conservative (former Indiana congressman Tim Roemer), or were too inexperienced (tactician Donnie Fowler). Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democratic Network, a centrist respected by liberals, might have gone the distance. But Dean outorganized him.

Though many among the Democrats' small but influential center-right faction are aghast at the thought of Dean heading the party, it's easy to forget who Howard Dean is. Despite his leadership in opposing Bush's invasion of Iraq, Dean was a moderate Vermont governor.

He was a fiscal conservative and friendly to business. Fans of Vermont's progressive hero, congressman Bernie Sanders, say Dean is no liberal. Dean alienated many liberals staking out moderate stands on health insurance, guns, environmentalism, and gay marriage. Vermont became the first state with domestic partnership only because a court ordered the Legislature to approve gay marriage or some equivalent and Dean opted for the more cautious approach.

On defense, where Democrats need to show that they are more serious about national security than Republicans, Dean is no pacifist. He simply believes that the Iraq war, as prosecuted by George Bush, on dishonest premises and with no serious planning for the aftermath, was the wrong way to keep America safe. If, as seems likely, the vaunted Iraq election ultimately leads to an Islamist theocracy, Dean's opposition will be vindicated yet again.

Dean is not without flaws. There are several ways that Dean could get himself into difficulty. First, a party chairman is rarely the party's public face (can you name the Republican chairman?) Dean is not exactly self-effacing, and if he tries to promote his own persona, he will amass enemies. He will also need to thread his way among the presidential contenders.

While Dean is a great organizer, he is not famous for being well organized. An effective party chairman is mainly expert at the political mechanics of party building. Many hope that Dean will select a strong "chief operating officer" to complement his own skills of inspiring and energizing volunteers. Some think Ickes, who surprised a lot of insiders by endorsing Dean, will play a major role.

Dean is also up against a formidable and unified Republican Party machine while the Democratic domain is fragmented. Often, Democrats are divided along interest group or ideological lines. This time there is a new twist. Besides the official party that Dean expects to lead, the so-called 527 organizations are there.

These pro-Democratic but unaffiliated groups raised more than $200 million for the election. They are duplicating a lot of what the party needs to do and siphoning energy and resources. The law requires them to be independent, and it's not clear whether they will be complements or rivals. In addition, with Senator Kerry contemplating another run in 2008, Kerry is keeping his separate donor lists and organization. In effect, there are three parallel parties.

The contrast with the unified Republican machinery is striking, where, as some obscure German didn't say, there is ein Bush, ein Rove, and ein party.

The only way Democrats can compete with this is by energizing activists and building their party. It's a more selfless job than running for president. Let's see what Dean can do.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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