Taking Back Democracy

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, October 4, 2004)


During the 2004 primaries, Howard Dean went from being a relatively unknown former Vermont governor to the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination largely on the strength of his grassroots organization. Now, while some of the other presidential contenders have been keeping a low profile, Dean is campaigning for John Kerry and other Democrats, while also working to grow the party’s grassroots through his political action committee, Democracy for America. The organization supports hundreds of candidates, deemed fiscally responsible and progressive — running in federal, state and local elections around the country.

Last week, Dean released his new book, “You Have the Power: How to Take Back Our Country and Restore Democracy in America.” He talked with about the lessons of his presidential campaign, the election ahead, and how Democrats, win or lose, can build their party beyond November. Do you think Kerry can win this election?

Howard Dean: I think he can pull it out, I really do. The debates are going to be really important. In a year when the president’s running for re-election, there are two decisions that voters have to make. The first one they’ve already made: They’ve decided to fire Bush — if they can find a replacement. In every poll, no matter how much Bush is up or whether he’s not at all, you see the wrong way/right way skewed heavily toward the wrong way. That means they’re dissatisfied with Bush and they’re willing to give him the heave-ho. The decision they have not yet made is, can Kerry fit the bill. That’s what Kerry has to accomplish in the debates. It’s not about showing that George Bush is a hypocrite or a bad president or anything like that. Everybody knows he’s not a good president. But they’ve got to decide that John Kerry is the one that they want instead. It’s a great opportunity for Kerry, and I think he can pull it off. You ran against Kerry. What about him gives you that confidence?

HD: He kicked my butt in Iowa, didn’t he? (laughs) I mean, everybody focused on how the frontrunner fell apart, but they didn’t focus on how the guy who won won. He did it by discipline, by having a great team on the ground, by connecting with people, and by talking about the issues they really care about. And I think he can do it again. What do you think Kerry has learned from your campaign?

HD: They’ve certainly been very effective at Internet fundraising. I think nobody took the most important lesson away from our campaign, which is to decentralize and give people around the country power to run the campaigns, rather than trying to run everything centrally. Nobody has done that. We did it because we had to, and then we discovered it was a great tool for making people feel like they were really valued in the campaign. And they still are. Our organization now is very decentralized, and it’s just great. On that note, you talk about the need to keep the grassroots in the Democratic Party organized and energized. How do you do that once there isn’t a presidential election to unite around?

HD: There’s a whole new cycle of elections coming up in March of ’05, which is mostly school boards and city councils and things like that. People have to be active. I’m hoping that John Kerry will win; if he does, we’ll be pushing his health-care agenda, which is universal health care. We need to have a kind of permanent campaign, which is what the Republicans have done for the last twenty years. So when I talk to people, I tell them, “You get a month off, and then everybody’s got to go back to work.” If you really want a democracy that works, you can’t expect somebody else to do the work. Why do you think the Democrats lost power, and how do they become the majority again?

HD: The reason the party lost power is that they’d been there for so long, they’d forgotten why they were there, and campaigns were all about getting re-elected without giving people a reason to vote for them. So along comes Newt Gingrich and kicks everybody out. Then he turns out to be a right-wing extremist, and so does the Republican Party, and now we’ve got a huge problem in the country. The way we get back in power is to speak about what we believe in; don’t be so afraid that we’re going to lose that we’re afraid to say anything of substance. Harry Truman always said that if you run a Republican against a Democrat who pretends he’s a Republican, the real Republican will always win. We need to speak to our constituents, speak to our base. The Republicans have been remarkably successful speaking to their base, and we’ve got to speak to ours. In the book, you say your positions haven’t changed much from when you were a delegate for Jimmy Carter, but that the party has shifted to the right around you.

HD: It’s true. And the remarkable shift didn’t really occur to me until after I ran for president, because in Vermont I was very much a centrist. I mean, my positions on gun control are probably a little more conservative than most people in the Democratic Party, although I did support the assault-weapons ban and all that. But my position on the death penalty is disturbing to some of my liberal friends, because I do support it in a few instances. I balanced twelve consecutive budgets. And yet, I was the most liberal guy out there other than the three candidates who really didn’t have a chance at winning! Well, that’s ridiculous. What happened to the spectrum of opinion in the Democratic Party? If I’m the most liberal guy and I’m in the center, that means the entire party is moving to the right — except for those who supported me. What can Democrats learn from the Gingrich revolution?

HD: We can learn a lot, and hopefully we are learning. We know what we have to do now. The question is, Are we capable of that discipline? We know we need some more infrastructure. We need leadership institutes. We need media institutes where we can get our message out the way the Republicans do. But we mostly need to work together. That’s what Republicans do and we don’t. But how do you instill that party discipline while remaining a big-tent party?

HD: I think, ultimately, the donors have to do it. The donors have to say, “We’re not going to fund every single idea. We’re only going to fund the ideas that we think are really important.” Now what that’s going to do is allow those who are really capable to get funding. And those who have strong grassroots efforts will get funding. Like ours, because we don’t depend on big donors. Big donors are very helpful and we welcome them, but our real support comes from grassroots people who give small amounts of money. You also talk about the need for Democrats to rebuild in the so-called “red states,” where Republicans dominate.

HD: The idea that we should write off Texas or Mississippi is ridiculous. We need to be down there, and we need to be making our case. How are you going to get somebody to vote for Democrats if hardly any of them are running? We need to make the progressive case. White, Southern voters are the most abandoned people in America right now. They keep voting for these right-wingers who go up and stick it to them. Their college tuitions go up, their health insurance — if they have health insurance — that goes up, their jobs go to Mexico. White voters in the South ought to be voting Democratic, because that’s their economic interest. That’s why the Republicans always talk about guns, God, gays and abortion instead of health care, education, jobs and a moral foreign policy. Because they lose on those issues, and they win on divisive issues. But we can compete with that in the South. And we are; Democracy for America is. We’re going to have some candidates in the South who are going to win. How does your organization decide which candidates to support and work with?

HD: Our local people decide who they want. For example, we have a wonderful guy named Richard Morrison, a first-time office seeker who’s only eight points behind Tom DeLay in Texas — unheard of in this very conservative district. The guy’s a really good guy, and he was recommended to us by our Texas people. Well, some folks in other parts of the country said, “How come you put this guy on your national listing? He’s kind of conservative.” The answer is, Yeah, but what passes for a more moderate person in Texas does not pass for a moderate or a liberal in Oregon or Washington. And that’s fine. There’s no litmus test except for what the local people in our group, which tends to be progressive, want. If they send us people, we look through them all, make sure they’re the right kind of person — that they’re a hard worker, they’re not nutty or stuff like that — and then we support them if we can.

There are some people who are running as Democrats who we’ve been asked to support and we can’t, because they’re virulently anti-gay, or they’re really anti-environmental. Maybe that’s good politics, but we can’t do that, because then we become too much like the national Democratic Party. And we do support people in primaries. We’ve lost some very close races, and we’ve won some races. One we won, the most spectacular one so far, is the woman who invented the butterfly ballot, Theresa LePore, lost to one of our guys who I went down and campaigned for and who we put on our list, Dr. Arthur Anderson. So Theresa LePore won’t be counting votes in Florida anymore after January 3. Who else have you supported?

HD: Barack Obama was an early one, because a lot of our people in the Illinois primary were working for him at the same time they were working for me. So we kind of discovered Barack before he was Barack. (laughs) There are some wonderful Senate candidates. Nancy Farmer in Missouri, who has an outside shot at knocking off Kit Bond. For the House, there’s a woman running against Henry Hyde named Christine Cegelis in Illinois. Another woman next to her, named Melissa Bean, who has a great shot at knocking off Phil Crane. There’s a 26-year-old woman who has a shot at Amo Houghton’s seat in upstate New York named Samara Barend who’s just terrific. So we’ve got some people who nobody’s heard of, but they’re terrific people. You mentioned not having an ideological litmus test, but what are the core values you see the Democratic Party needing to build around?

HD: The core values are what you’d expect from the kind of people who supported me. The charter of the organization said basically, socially progressive and fiscally conservative. They’ve got to toe the line on money, because if you don’t, you really hurt poor people by promising them programs you can’t ultimately fund. Or else you fund it for two years and then you take it away. So there’s a wide ideological spectrum, though the right is pretty much excluded. But it’s health insurance, it’s public education, it’s strong environmental protection, and it’s a moral foreign policy with moral leadership. And of course jobs, which is also a big one. You worked with George W. Bush when you were both governors. How has he, as president, compared to what you expected?

HD: He’s been a terrible disappointment. George Bush was always very pleasant, and I’m sure he still is. But he was not a far right-winger when he was governor, and now he’s adopted all these nutty ideas: supply-side economics, Paul Wolfowitz’s primer on how to conduct foreign policy and make everybody in the world hate you, the Patriot Act. All this sort of lunatic-fringe-right stuff. I don’t understand it; I don’t know what happened. If Kerry defeats Bush, how much of that can change?

HD: I think over time, we’ll roll a lot of it back. But that’s why we can’t quit. A John Kerry victory is a great start, but it’s certainly not the end. We’ve got to continue to refresh and reform the Democratic Party and the country, and get our message out. We need real change this time. We don’t want just a presidency that’s going to stop the bleeding for another eight years; we’ve got to really fundamentally change the way America looks at core issues like social justice and fiscal stability — and George Bush strikes out on both of those.

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