For Dean's movement, an unlikely inspiration
WASHINGTON -- As Howard Dean's presidential campaign sputtered to closure one year ago, the candidate and a half dozen trusted aides began gathering in his Burlington, Vt., office, scribbling ideas on a white board about where to channel the fierce voter and donor energy that had already become his legacy to the Democratic Party.
Within weeks, the former Vermont governor concluded that he needed to reach back in history and borrow a page from a grass-roots movement that most of his supporters revile -- the Christian Coalition.
Fourteen years after the Rev. Pat Robertson's failed Republican presidential bid morphed into the Christian Coalition, Dean copied the TV evangelist by launching a political action committee to field and financially support scores of like-minded candidates across the country, for offices from town clerk to Congress. The network helped convince Democratic state-party representatives to back Dean for his party's most prominent job: chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Now, as DNC delegates gather in Washington for an election tomorrow that will almost certainly make Dean the next party chairman, the Dean team hopes the candidates he backed in 2004 can seed a movement to tug his party away from the center, as evangelicals succeeded in doing inside the GOP in the early 1990s.
When Dean formally pulled out of the presidential race last February, "we were at the Pat Robertson's-candidacy-has-fallen-apart moment," recalled Zephyr Teachout, Internet outreach director for the Dean campaign. "We were doing extensive research on the Christian Coalition."
The group that grew out of that research, Democracy for America, plans to continue to support progressive candidates, independent of Dean's efforts at the DNC. Still, some party insiders are predicting that Dean's nearly assured victory will prompt a struggle between grass-roots activists on the left and the Democratic old guard, just as moderate GOP leaders resisted the Christian right in the 1990s.
"The November election demonstrated that Democrats need to be in the center," said former Clinton pollster Doug Schoen. "From what I've seen, Dean's point of view does not recognize where the party needs to be. I don't believe we can reverse the decline in party identification with this strategy."
Some major fund-raisers, who declined to speak on the record, said they expect large donors to wait on the sidelines with the emergence of Dean, preferring to give money to Democratic organizations other than the DNC.
But Dean supporters predict his critics ultimately will come on board once they see the energy, money, and volunteers he brings to the table as he tries to rebuild struggling state party structures. "The goal isn't to run anyone out, it's to bring everyone in," said Steve McMahon, Dean's longtime media adviser. "The people who've given [money] are going to be critically important to the party, but so are the people who've never given before."
Dean supporters stress his centrist record as Vermont governor, during which time he balanced the budget and was endorsed by the National Rifle Association. They also point to his plan to infuse DNC resources into state parties that they say were largely ignored during a presidential campaign that focused mostly on a dozen or so swing states. Dean appealed to the state party chairs, a critical voting bloc for the DNC race, with an offer to make the national organization foot the bill for top state staff.
But it is clear that Dean supporters also expect him to promote a liberal message for the Democratic Party. "The chair must articulate issues of economic justice" rather than moving to the right, said Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of the 1.8-million-member Service Employees International Union and a key Dean ally. "Dean's never been afraid of standing with workers. And he understands that we need to grow more activist in this country."
Dean himself has repeatedly said that the Democratic Party can't win elections by being "Republican-lite," and his supporters typically express disappointment that Democratic nominee John F. Kerry wasn't bold enough in attacking the White House or opposing the Iraq war.
Dean's decision early last year to follow the Christian Coalition model grew out of his own aversion to a Washington establishment that first underestimated and then resisted his presidential candidacy, despite a volcanic outpouring of Internet donors and grass-roots volunteers who were drawn both to Dean's antiwar stance and his stinging condemnations of Republican opponents.
"Changing Washington is going to be a lot harder than it appeared last summer," Dean wrote to his supporters after losing both the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. "The entrenched interests will fight to the end and are not going to be nice about giving up their ability to take our money and spend it on their friends."
Early last year, as the Washington press corps turned its attention away from Dean and toward the Kerry-Bush race, the failed presidential candidate quietly began rebuilding his position inside the party by borrowing from the religious right.
"What the Christian Coalition did has always been interesting to Dean and all of us," said Roy Neel, chief executive officer of Dean's presidential campaign. "The emergence of the Republican majority didn't happen overnight. The Christian Coalition changed the debate and fielded candidates. Governor Dean has always been impressed with that."
In March, Dean launched Democracy for America to "build a new base of progressive liberal candidates who will run for office," said Neel, who oversaw the transition from presidential campaign to national PAC.
In the early 1990s, the Christian Coalition, led by Ralph Reed, who had been hired by Robertson to build a movement out of his failed presidential bid, recruited and trained evangelicals to run for local, state, and national office. Reed's stated ambition was to lead the Christian right away from the political margins to take a "place at the table" of the Republican Party. He is widely credited with pushing the GOP to the right on social issues.
Reed's group built a database of church members and Robertson supporters and sought out candidates for positions ranging from school board to US Congress. The Christian Coalition then sponsored training seminars to teach them how to raise money, build campaign organizations, and get a respectful hearing in the media.
Dean's group used 21st century technology, specifically his web-log, to begin its own search for a farm team.
"Within two weeks, we identified something like 120 candidates" who were on ballots around the country largely because of Dean, said Teachout. "We knew people had been inspired. But this was explosive."
James Whitaker, a 31-year-old high-tech worker running for state representative in Michigan, saw Dean's blog prompt -- "Are you running for office?" -- and created a
Meanwhile, Democracy for America offered a fund-raising forum for candidates on its web site, bringing them thousands of dollars in donations. While the site featured high-level players such as Barack Obama of Illinois, who was elected to the US Senate, no political position was considered too small, and support was offered to candidates for soil and water commission, supervisor of elections, and township clerk.
During the 2004 election, Dean's group contributed more than $600,000 to 634 candidates for nonfederal office and says that 319 of those candidates won. All told, the group raised $5 million, mostly from small donors, for 748 candidates in 46 states.
In addition, Dean personally walked picket lines, talked to striking nurses, and used his high profile to attract attention for like-minded candidates -- just as the charismatic Reed did in the 1990s.
"He showed up a number of times in Texas," said state party chair Charles Soechting, who noted that Democracy for America actively supported a challenge to House majority leader Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas, who promoted a redistricting plan that cost four Democrats their House seats. DeLay's challenger lost, but Dean's help was appreciated.
Dean's expected victory means that he will assume the chairmanship of an organization that most of his supporters consider "inept," as SEIU's Burger put it, and out of touch with grass-roots activists.
After the Democrats' losses in November, Dean made it clear he intended to change the party hierarchy, not be changed by it. In a December speech titled "The Future of the Democratic Party," he laid down his marker with a quote from Harry S Truman: "We're not going to get anywhere by trimming or by appeasing. And we ought not to try it."