Howard's Beginning

There is little room left to stand in the Atlanta nightclub Eleven50, a cavernous former opera house that sports an outsized mirror ball and the thumping electronic dance music favored by the hip, scantily clad, under-35 set. But on this humid weeknight in early June, the crowd is decidedly unhip, mostly well past its fourth decade. Nevertheless, this silk-and-seersucker set -- who paid $50 to $5,000 to get in -- acts as if there is a rock star in the room. The 650 men and women are cheering wildly, hanging over the balcony, lighting up the room with flashbulbs and begging autographs of the short, graying, and bland-looking doctor who they desperately hope will become the savior of their beloved Democratic Party.

The unreserved enthusiasm of the hoi polloi stands in marked contrast to the more aloof behavior of another class of Democrats, one to whom Howard Dean has been less inspiring than anxiety-producing during his first half-year as chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). At the Eleven50, only one elected official -- Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who also is the state party treasurer -- joins Dean on stage. Not one of the six Democrats elected to statewide offices, including the two running for governor, is there. Not one of the state's six Democratic members of Congress is there. Not one state House member. Not one state senator. Asked later why just one elected official showed up, the state party spokesman invoked the same excuse four times: “The mayor of Atlanta was there.”

The division of opinion between the boisterous crowd and the absent higher-ups in Atlanta reflects a stark truth: Little has changed since Dean screamed his way into presidential campaign history in early 2004. He remains blunt, mouthy, “quick of the lip,” as one admirer put it. He is not afraid of a fight; in fact, he is girding for one. He does not pull punches, and he is proud of that. He also excites, invigorates, and reaches out to people who never viewed themselves as political.

He worries people, too. While it is too early to judge Dean's effectiveness -- the 2006 and 2008 elections will provide the best proof -- it is possible to examine the impact of his leadership on four key constituencies: rank-and-file activists and voters, professional operatives in Washington and around the country, elected officials, and big-money donors. The rank and file adores his style. The operatives -- including, perhaps surprisingly, the ones based in Washington -- give Dean good marks on substance, united in the belief that his “50-state strategy” to rebuild the party is the right approach. But the elected officials and the big-money people are not Deaniacs by a long shot. Aside from a few public comments (by Joe Biden and John Edwards, notably), they are reluctant to criticize him for the record. I spoke with more than 50 people for this article, and I wanted to speak with many more -- but I was astonished at the number of Democrats who have returned my calls for years who did not when the subject was Howard Dean.

The conventional wisdom on Dean is that he's a divisive loudmouth who may be doing his party more harm than good (GOP quotes to this effect regularly find their way into the media, for whom Dean serves as a big, fat target). There is some truth to this view; fairly or not, Dean's broad-brush comments about Republicans are likely to dominate coverage of him for some time.

But this view ignores something critical: The Democrats of the Bush era weren't doing so great before Dean, and they have serious problems that are not of Dean's making. The party is decades behind the Republicans organizationally; it is, despite some undeniable oppositional successes like the Social Security fight, still staring at long-term minority status; and it's seen by many as so bereft of ideas that it has come to this: While explaining the Watergate break-in to generations too young to remember it, Jay Leno quipped, “See, back in those days, the Democrats actually had some ideas worth stealing.”

These problems are what Dean came to Washington to fix. To do that, he'll need to get all his constituencies behind him. What can he realistically hope to accomplish? Can he bring the party to equal footing with the Republican National Committee (RNC)? Can state party building and small money offset Dean's problems with the party's elites? These, more than his headline-grabbing way with words, are the real questions of the Dean era, and the criteria by which his party will succeed or fail.

* * *

Howard Brush Dean III is the 47th person to chair the DNC since it was organized in 1848. It's a job that's changed with the politics of the time and the political skills of the holder. Jim Farley, a tough Irish New Yorker, helped secure the support of the city and state Democratic bosses for Franklin Delano Roosevelt at a time when local party organizations, particularly from a few urban centers, firmly controlled the workings of the national party. In the late Eisenhower years, Paul Butler, one of the most important chairmen in the Democrats' history, repositioned the party so that it didn't look so southern and segregationist. In the late 1980s, lobbyist and lawyer Ron Brown segmented the electorate in such microscopic detail that, by 1992, Bill Clinton knew exactly where Democratic voters were and turned them out.

At first, Dean wasn't sure he wanted the job. “Well, it was my second choice,” he told me with a laugh during a sit-down interview at the party's headquarters on Capitol Hill in June. “But it seemed to me this is the best way to change the country.” He briefly considered starting a third-party movement but realized that would take too long. He also thought about running for president again in 2008 but decided it would be tough for any Democrat to win if the party weren't remade, said one longtime adviser (his current job, Dean insists, absolutely precludes an '08 candidacy).

His political friends thought he'd be bored within weeks. Yet ever since he won the post in February -- building up so much support, particularly from red-staters, that his rivals dropped out -- Dean has reveled in just about every aspect of his job, from the behind-the-scenes strategizing to the constant airport hopping and speechifying to the very public Republican-bashing.

The centerpiece of Dean's plan is to build up state parties with what he calls a 50-state strategy. He wants to place four DNC–paid organizers in every state to build up support on an ongoing basis -- not just in election years, and not just during presidential races. Under something called the Partnership Program, says DNC communications director Karen Finney, assessment teams from Washington visit each state and meet with party and community leaders and activists to determine what a state needs to do to win. “The idea here is that we're not taking a cookie-cutter approach,” she told me. For instance, Democratic officials in West Virginia asked for money to hire a youth organizer, while those in Mississippi asked for a communications director.

The states must submit a plan and set goals that they will be required to meet. The assessment team has visited 46 states, Finney said, and the DNC has authorized 25 of them to start hiring organizers. Dean's goal, she said, was to get all the new hires in place by the end of the year.

What Dean is trying to change here is an almost exclusive focus in the past by the DNC on electing a president, which has led it to overlook Republican regions. In the 2004 presidential election, for example, the Democrats focused on just 17 states. Now, they are reaping the consequences of that strategy. State parties have faltered throughout the country, and Democrats have lost governors' mansions, statehouses, and congressional seats. States are breeding grounds for federal officials; four of the last five presidents had been governors, and most members of Congress began in local or state government. What's more, it is the state legislatures that have the powerful task of redrawing congressional districts every decade. Just how much does it matter? Democrats lost five seats in the U.S. House of Representatives last year as a result of Republican-finessed redistricting in Texas alone.

“The people at the DNC and in Washington have all been fixated so much on presidential politics that there's not a base in the states to win. Those people up there are so parochial and so myopic that they can't see it,” says Don Fowler, who chaired the DNC in 1995–96. Focusing only on the presidency, said Fowler, whose son, Donnie, ran against Dean for chairman, is a “cardinal sin.”

By mid-July, Finney said, Dean had traveled to 29 states. Among them were some of the deepest-red states, including Texas, Mississippi, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Georgia (Dean splits his remaining time between DNC headquarters and his family's home in Vermont). None is a state in which John Kerry came remotely close to 50 percent. The next Democrat probably won't, either, but for Dean, that's all right: The point is not to produce an immediate Electoral College win but a crop of young politicians who, over time, can potentially move the states over to the Democratic column. In the meantime, Democrats in those long-neglected states are energized.

Dean's cross-country treks have won him strong support among state Democratic chairs. “You tell me there's not one state chair that isn't glad to see Governor Dean come in,” exclaims South Carolina's Democratic chair, Joe Erwin.

“He got a fantastic reception, the biggest crowd we've ever had, to my knowledge, in a Mississippi Democratic Party function,” state party chair and former Congressman Wayne Dowdy told me after Dean visited Jackson in March. More than 1,000 contributors shelled out nearly $100,000 at what Dowdy euphorically characterized as “the most successful event we've ever had.” Dowdy said he left the fund-raiser, at the Clarion Hotel, at close to midnight, nearly an hour and a half after the speechifying stopped. Dean was still there, he said, shaking hands.

“Dean still has star appeal,” Dowdy says. “People like him. They don't like everything he says, but they know he's genuine.”

State chairs say that they were in the wilderness under previous regimes. “I've had more communications with the DNC in the last five months than in the previous two years,” Randy Button, chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, told me. He gushed about a fund-raiser Dean headlined this spring, raising $60,000. “I was not supportive of Howard Dean when he ran” for chairman or for president, Button said. “But I'll tell you, I'm a big fan now. He has converted me. He is a very genuine person.”

* * *

The 50-state strategy has few detractors among Democrats, and why would it? It's smart over the long term and uplifting in the short run. But the question remains: Will four DNC operatives in Oklahoma and Alabama make any difference if the party isn't more defined? A sales force is all well and good, but it needs a product to sell. And the party still needs to define itself.

“We don't seem to have any ideas,” lamented Gary Jones, a retired financial real-estate developer and former DNC Finance Committee member who attended the Atlanta fund-raiser. “We seem to be opposed to everything.”

Dean agrees. The party can't just denigrate the president, he told me. It needs ideas and a message. The ideas, which the DNC will work on with Congress members and other officeholders, are likely to focus on defense and national security, economic security, health care, and education, Dean said. The message will be developed by advertising professionals, he said, from outside the Beltway.

Here's where Dean could find himself at odds with leaders on Capitol Hill, elected officials who see the cultivation of ideas and a message as their job. As Harry Reid's communications director, Jim Manley, told me, “Dean's job is to amplify the message from the Hill.”

In this sense, Dean's challenge is similar to Butler's in the late 1950s. Butler had to remake the image of the party, and he did so by bringing leading liberal thinkers -- John Kenneth Galbraith, Thomas K. Finletter, and others -- into party decision making and policy setting under the umbrella of something he called the Democratic Advisory Committee. But in the process, he butted heads with then-Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senator Lyndon Johnson. Ultimately, Butler expanded the appeal of the party -- remember, in 1956, when Butler was chairman, there was no difference between the two major parties on race (and today's cultural issues didn't exist), so the Democrats had to work to get northern liberals and moderates. Dean must do much the same, but in the opposite direction.

And so he talks like this: “The Democratic Party is essentially a party based on morality. From a biblical point of view, if you ran a checklist of moral values, I think we'd be on firmer ground than the Republicans are. They have successfully painted us as a party that doesn't have morals, and nothing could be further from the truth.” Dean has a checklist: Possessing moral values means not letting kids go to bed hungry, providing a decent education, taking care of the environment, looking after senior citizens, not building up the debt, and loving your neighbors. Jesus, he says in just about every speech, did not say you could pick your neighbors.

Dean has asked DNC Chief of Staff Leah Daughtry, a Pentecostal minister, to tap into the community of faith-based voters, especially in those mushrooming “mega-churches.” Daughtry, who calls herself a “Bible thumper,” said Democrats are trying to shift the discussion from abortion and gay rights -- wedge issues Republicans have used to whip up support among religious conservatives -- to the kinds of problems most families wrestle with. When she talks to clergy members, she tells them that “they've got 20,000 members who have to deal with bread-and-butter issues. How many gay people have asked you to marry them? But how many have elderly parents, or are worried about the education of their kids?”

Even as the party extends a hand to people it previously wrote off, it must do more to keep its most loyal voters in the fold. The GOP has been working relentlessly to win over Hispanics and other minorities, groups the Democrats often are accused of taking for granted. To that end, Dean has hired Christine Owens, formerly of the AFL-CIO, to oversee outreach to core constituencies.

* * *

We're sitting in a stark, white conference room in the Democratic Party's national headquarters on Capitol Hill -- a building erected so close to the train tracks that the room periodically shakes. I'm asking Dean about the one thing he is asked about most often: himself, and in particular, his way of expressing himself.

January: “I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for.”

March: “Republicans are brain-dead.”

June: A lot of Republicans “have never made an honest living in their lives.”

June again: The GOP is “pretty much a white, Christian party.”

Dean is only mildly reflective when asked about his verbal gaffes. Actually, it's not clear he even considers them gaffes. “I'll tell you an example of a big gaffe,” he says, with a hint of sarcasm. “We're no safer now than we were since before Saddam Hussein was captured.” Dean was paraphrasing one of the more controversial pronouncements of his presidential campaign. “Now, most people in America agree with me. So my timing's a little off, but not the veracity of what I say.”

The problem, as Dean sees it, is not what he says but how his comments are misinterpreted, twisted, and “cranked up” by the RNC and the media. His aides try to explain that he tells the same stories again and again, and sometimes, upon retelling, he forgets to explain fully. They are Dean shorthand, these advisers say. This is how they explain the “white, Christian party” remark. “He's said that 500 times,” said one longtime Dean adviser who asked to remain anonymous. “But he said it slightly differently, and bing!”

Dean lashed out at Republicans for not working hard enough the morning after Donna Brazile, head of the DNC's Voting Rights Institute, gave him a copy of a draft report showing that in Ohio during the 2004 election, African Americans stood in voting lines three times longer on average than whites. “When I heard what he said, I said, ‘Oh, shit, I shouldn't have given him that report,'” Brazile told me shortly afterward. Dean was less troubled. “You know, I speak probably a little more, with some hyperbole, which most people in politics do,” he says. “But I'm not going to back down because what I'm saying is true.

“So, sure, I can choose my words more carefully, but believe me, I'm going to be as blunt and in-your-face as I need to be,” he says, his piercing blue eyes giving no ground. Before a photographer starts shooting, Finney leans in to fix Dean's hair. But that's about all she can fix. His language is his own. He is, to a great extent, a free agent.

“The reason for me to choose my words more carefully is not because I'm afraid people aren't gonna like me -- that's not my job right now,” he says. “The reason for me to change is to make sure that the Republicans can't use what I say as a diversionary tactic to divert them from their enormous failures to defend the country and to run the place with a reasonable fiscal attitude.”

So, I ask him, will you try to think through what you say to prevent it from being misconstrued? “No,” he says with a smile. “I think you can expect more fireworks.”

The fireworks may be slipups, but one senses Dean enjoys them. They are his call to arms. “I tell you what: The base of this party, which was really demoralized, thinks it's great,” Dean said, shrugging off those who think otherwise. “Look, people want us to fight back. The biggest problem with the Democratic Party is we think that if we join 'em, we can win. We can't. What they're doing to this country is appalling. They can't manage money. They've made the armed services in the United States much weaker, not to mention not giving them adequate equipment to do the job and not taking the advice of people who know what they're doing in the Pentagon. This is a gang that can't shoot straight. And that can't manage anything. They're completely, completely addicted to power, and they've forgotten about the American people. And somebody has to fight that. And the Democrats are gonna fight it. And there's a lot of Democrats out there who want to fight it. So I may not always choose my words wisely, but I think people really, really want to fight.”

That explains how Dean reacted when, days before our interview, Vice President Dick Cheney said on national television that the DNC chair might be loved by just one person: his mother. No one was happier to hear that than Dean.

“Thank God, finally we have somebody representing the Democratic Party who can actually force the vice president to attack us,” Dean tells me, with no small amount of hubris. “We need to be in their face. These people are bad for America, and they aren't truthful people. And we need to be in their face, reminding people of what we would do differently.”

Thank God, in other words, for Howard Dean.

In fact, a lot of Democrats agree with Dean's assessment of himself. “I think it's refreshing, and I rather hope he keeps it up,” Jerry Clark, a former union executive and gay-rights activist, said as he munched strawberries at a DNC fund-raiser in a Washington museum in June. “I think of him as being, in this particular dimension, almost Trumanesque.” Dean would be pleased to hear that: Harry Truman is his idol. It only makes sense that supporters commonly yell “Give 'em hell, Howard!” at Dean speeches.

For his legions of supporters, Dean is like Billy Graham; he is their evangelist, showing them the way. “I could talk forever about Howard Dean,” Elly Shaw-Belblidia, a nutritionist from Gaithersburg, Maryland, said as she walked to the subway following a recent DNC fund-raiser in Bethesda, Maryland. The first time she heard Dean speak, in 2003, she “was gaga. I became addicted to Howard Dean. I'm a Dean groupie.” He might shoot from the hip, say Dean's devotees, but at least he's shooting, which is more than most Democrats have been doing.

* * *

Dean rarely reads from a script. At 56, he is blessed with a good memory and a quick mind, and he delivers different versions of the same speech, almost never referring to notes. His gift allows him to leave a lectern and stroll about a stage, holding a microphone in one hand while gesticulating with the other. It allows him to act natural and animated, to look people in the eye, to connect more directly with his audiences. It allows him to be spontaneous.

Spontaneity almost always is good in politics. It's one of the things that made Bill Clinton a more engaging and effective speaker than George Bush Senior. But it can be dangerous as well. So it is with Dean: The very attribute that gives him power among some Democrats -- his willingness to speak his mind -- has others holding him at arm's length.

Dean has yet to win over many elected officials and big-money donors. Consider that none of the most visible Democrats in the country -- including Senate Minority Leader Reid; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin; Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rahm Emanuel; Kerry and his running mate, Edwards; and potential presidential contenders and Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Biden -- would return repeated phone calls requesting interviews for this story.

Biden, of Delaware, was one of the few Democrats to criticize Dean openly following some of the doctor's latest incendiary comments. “He doesn't speak for me with that kind of rhetoric, and I don't think he speaks for the majority of Democrats,” Biden said in June on ABC's This Week. Edwards said, “The chairman of the DNC is not the spokesman for the party. He's a voice. I don't agree with it.” Leon Panetta, former chief of staff to President Clinton, said Dean's comments divert attention from what the Democrats really need to do: present a “clear vision” of where they want to take the country. As head of the party, he said, Dean should “not become a lightning rod.”

Perhaps more disconcerting is the sense among southern political observers that Dean's invectives are alienating white southerners, the Democrats turned Republicans whom the party needs if it is to carry the South again. “Every time he comes in, he probably manufactures more Republicans,” said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. “He's insulting large numbers of people.” Claibourne Darden, a longtime Atlanta political consultant to both parties, told me, “Dean is going over in the South every bit as well as fire ants have. But there's a lot more fire ants than there are Democrats now.” Darden said Dean's provocative comments are considered extreme by southern moderates and puts Dean “right up there with David Duke,” calling the chairman a “kiss of death” for Democrats.

That's certainly not true everywhere. In tried-and-true blue states, high-profile Democrats are not afraid to cozy up to Dean. At a May fund-raiser in Bethesda, so many Congress members, U.S. Senate candidates, state lawmakers, and local officeholders were on hand that they couldn't all fit on the podium.

Still, even Dean's supporters acknowledge that he sometimes crosses the rhetorical line. But they describe him as something of a double-edged sword, and say they are willing to take the bad to get the good. “What makes him so refreshing and so galvanizing for so many Democrats is his willingness to be firm and have convictions. There is a part of the party that is tired of wishy-washiness,” says Maria Echaveste, White House deputy chief of staff under Clinton and a senior adviser to Dean's presidential campaign (she's also a member of this magazine's board). Nonetheless, she added, “There are times I wish he had an edit button.”

Lynn Cutler, a former DNC vice chair and informal adviser to Dean's presidential campaign, lavished praise on him for hopscotching the country to build up state parties and unearth new voters. “When he goes to these places where nobody's been and gets covered, it's great,” she says. “But when you get these additional comments, these throwaway lines, then this becomes the issue. I think calling all Republicans white Christians who never worked a day in their life might be a step too far. It just throws fodder at them.” But, Cutler added in an e-mail following our interview: “What the party is doing under Gov. Dean on strengthening state parties is unprecedented and fresh in approach … . Terrific stuff.”

The other people not so happy with Dean are the money people. The DNC is lagging far behind the RNC in fund raising. In the first half of this year, the Democratic Party reported raising $28.5 million, considerably less than the $52.9 million reaped by the RNC through May (the RNC did not release June figures before this story went to press). Dean's spokespeople tried to put a positive spin on it, as press people usually do. Dean is raising more than $1 million a week, they said, and the $28.5 million is more than the DNC has brought in under any other chair in a nonelection year. Nonetheless, Democratic operatives counter that Dean's predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, a legendary moneyman, built the party's fund-raising apparatus up so much -- increasing the number of givers sevenfold from 2001 through 2004 -- that Dean should be considerably further ahead. Dean is trying to make up some of the difference with something he calls “Democracy Bonds,” a new device that allows donors to contribute to the DNC via credit card each month. His focus here, as it was in his presidential campaign, is on small-money donors.

But there is a sharp difference between raising money for a presidential race and for a party. Individuals can give just $2,100 to a presidential (or any federal) candidate per election, but they can donate $26,700 to a political party. So while small givers play a big role in a candidate's campaign, big givers are crucial to the DNC's long-term stability. Dean has been running around the country courting regular folks but paying precious little attention to wealthy givers who have bankrolled the party in the past, according to several Democratic strategists who spoke on condition of anonymity. Some, they said, have closed their checkbooks. The donors they mentioned, businesspeople and moguls on both coasts, did not return my repeated phone calls.

Dean told me he does not intend to slight anyone, and that he does and will continue to meet with large donors. A Dean fund-raising event generally is two-tiered, consisting of a private (sans media) bash for larger-money donors followed by a larger, more open event for the smaller givers. Finney said 30 percent of the people who have contributed to the DNC this year never have before, and that most of them were “low-dollar donors.” She said she did not know how much money has come from smaller- versus larger-money donors. But in an April press release, the DNC bragged that $12.1 million of the $14.1 million it had raised through March came from small-money donors (though it didn't define what that meant), and that the average donation was $50.80. Whether an upsurge in small donations can make up for a drop in large ones, or whether the big-money donors will come back to the party as an election nears, remains to be seen. The move toward smaller-money donors is admirable philosophically, and it may wean the party off of corporate support. But there's such a thing as too much of a good thing, and the Democrats will not be in good shape in November 2006 if Dean hasn't stroked the big-money donors by then.

* * *

“Ain't No Mountain High Enough” blares from the speakers as Dean signs a T-shirt and poses for snapshots and a homemade video after his speech at Atlanta's Eleven50. Oliver Brown stands to the side of the dance floor, reflecting on his several decades as a Democratic Party activist. At different times, the septuagenarian notes, the party has needed different types of leaders. Now, he says, it needs Howard Dean.

“I think he's just what the Democrats need -- an energizer,” he tells me. “We don't need any more apologizing.”

Dean possesses the intellect, the instinct, and the muscle to turn his party around. He knows what has to be done, and has embarked on a course that even detractors say is desirable. He is taking the party to the states, developing ideas and a message to wrap around them, changing the way the party talks to and reaches out to Americans. He must make the Democratic Party matter again, not just as a tool to block bad bills and nominees but as an incubator of ideas, an instigator of change. The question is whether his greatest virtue -- the fight within him -- also is a fatal flaw.

Most Democrats I spoke to, even those with misgivings, said they were willing to take a risk with Dean. As Minyon Moore, former DNC chief operating officer, put it: “When you've been doing the same thing for years and years and years and you're not winning, doing something different might cause you to win. Turn the Titanic.”

Dean demonstrated during his presidential race that he can inspire and innovate. He also is capable of self-destructing, of opening his mouth and inserting an iceberg. But the crowd at the Eleven50 and Democrats across the country know they have more to worry about than what Howard Dean says. Now, they're just waiting to see what he does.

Jodi Enda has covered the White House and Congress for Knight Ridder Newspapers and is past president of the Journalism & Women Symposium. She lives in Washington, D.C.