Is It Time to Believe?

As Democrats in Iowa and beyond prepare to start voting, we can look back and identify four distinct phases of this nascent presidential campaign: the early, we-get-to-know-them phase; the preliminary nuts-and-bolts phase, concerned with which candidate hired which professionals; the money-chase phase; and, most recently, the first winnowing phase, when observers felt they finally knew enough about the play of things to start making predictions.

These phases have had their distinct characteristics, but they have one thing in common: In each of them, Howard Dean was prematurely and mistakenly written off. In phase one he was too abrasive; in phase two he'd hired second-raters; in phase three he couldn't possibly raise big money; and in the last phase he'd peaked too early. The reality, instead, is that he and campaign manager Joe Trippi have run a dazzlingly brilliant and innovative campaign. Al Gore's imprimatur or no, he could still be "stopped"—other candidates in the field have positive attributes, and voters haven't cast a ballot yet. But Dean just seems to get stronger every week, challenging not only the laws of politics but of Isaac Newton himself. Why?

Let's rewind the tape to December1988. the Democratic Party had hit rock bottom. It had just lost its third presidential election in a row, and this time with a candidate who'd been 17 points ahead in the polls as late as August. The party was riven by ideological divisions. And it was losing the memory of itself as a vibrant organism—no Democrat under 35 or so in 1988 had a living memory of a truly successful Democratic president. Finally, there was no clear "comer" who could save it, certainly not that gabby governor from Arkansas who jabbered on and on at the 1988 convention podium to such an extent that he became a national curiosity, invited on The Tonight Show to explain himself (yes, yes: publicity was the point).

It turned out that Bill Clinton was the comer the party needed. He rebuilt it; indeed, he saved it. But for the purposes of thinking clearly about the Dean phenomenon, it's crucial to think about the particular ways in which Clinton rebuilt the party, and one way in which he did not.

Clinton rebuilt the party ideologically. He shed it of some of its more hidebound ways. Whether one agrees with, say, his support for welfare reform or NAFTA, it must be said that those moves took some political courage insofar as there wasn't much of a natural constituency within the Democratic Party for his positions. Moving something as large as a political party off a marker on which it has stood for a generation or two is no easy thing.

He also rebuilt the party as a fund-raising machine. This, as we know, has had both its good and its ill effects. But whatever the downsides, this rebuilding, too, was necessary. From the stock-market boom to the exorbitant price of gourmet mustards, the 1990s culture was about money. Politics was not immune. The Democrats, always cash-poor compared with the Republicans—and especially so after losing three presidential elections in a row—needed to join the financial big leagues to be able to compete.

But there is one way in which Clinton did not rebuild the Democratic Party: from the ground up. Beyond rhetoric, and the occasional action, he didn't really make it a party of the people. He and Al Gore did energize a youth vote in 1992, and he made millions of voters who'd been disaffected feel comfortable voting Democratic again, bringing important states like New Jersey back into the Democratic camp.

But he never situated the party as an entity that represented the aspirations of its people—its most committed members. Back to Newton: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And the reaction to bringing the party to the center and allying it more closely with corporate donors was that the people at the bottom of the totem pole felt a little detached. (Remember: Fierce loyalty to Clinton within the party's base didn't really kick into fifth gear until the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when many progressives defended Clinton less because of the man himself than because of what they saw as a functional coup d'état.)

This is where Howard Dean comes in. If one thinks of the Democratic Party as rebuilding itself after its disastrous 1980s, then Dean—or more appropriately, "Deanism"—is a new and potentially more powerful stage of the rebuilding process. Clinton rebuilt (forgive the Marxist terminology, but it happens to fit) the superstructure. Dean is rebuilding the base. "If Clinton modernized the message," says Simon Rosenberg, the most prominent centrist Democrat who's enthusiastic about Dean, "then Dean is rebuilding the party. In the '90s party, it was, 'Write us a big check.' Regular people were left out of that equation. Now, through new technology, we're getting them back in."

There's a tricky thing about this rebuilding stage, though: It excludes party insiders. It has nothing to do with Washington. It's no wonder that Democratic insiders, so accustomed to having complete ownership of a process like a party primary campaign, should dislike Dean and even fear him: He has stolen the process right out of their hands. He is not "of" them in any way, shape or form. In fact, his accumulating successes merely serve to emphasize their irrelevance to this rebuilding stage. No wonder they should take a kind of emotional comfort in writing him off as the new George McGovern; it's much easier to dismiss a thorny thing than to come to terms with it.

It isn't clear—yet—that Dean can rebuild the potential Democratic electorate beyond the party base. But it isn't clear that he can't, either.

If Deanism was, and is, a natural and entirely logical part of a larger historical process—there's still a question: It's the right movement, sure, but is he the right candidate?

The voters, the process and the man himself will tell us that in time. Dick Gephardt, John Kerry and John Edwards would all be perfectly good candidates. Each has an argument. With regard to Wesley Clark, we can't quite say yet whether he'd be a good candidate, though he brings a few qualities to the table whose potential appeal in November is obvious. And goodness knows, if any of the above manages to overcome Dean and become the nominee, he sure will have earned the title.

Unless, that is, he benefited from an insider-driven process designed to block Dean at all costs. At this point, after he has amassed the armies of small donors and bloggers and volunteers, blocking Dean is not blocking one man. It's blocking the hopes of millions of Democrats who—understand the importance of this—would walk through fire for a candidate for the first time in their lives. That isn't something that should be done cavalierly; in the long term, blocking the active participation of these millions may do more damage to the Democratic Party than four more years of George W. Bush.

Besides, insurgents do win sometimes. Because the standard historical analogies to Dean (McGovern, Barry Goldwater) have now run their course, let me add two more to the mix. The first is Andrew Jackson—invoked, significantly, by Dean himself at the Dec. 9 endorsement event with Gore. Say all you want about 1828 being ancient history, but some things are eternal. Bringing new constituencies into the process and transforming politics through that infusion is one of them. Yesterday it was the pamphleteer, today it's the blogger; but the impulse and the ardor are the same. Another is Harold Washington. It was impossible, the experts said, for African Americans to elect a black mayor in Chicago. Couldn't be done. Well, it happened. He won the way Jackson did, which is the way Dean is hoping to.

But ultimately, forget historical analogies. What's important is not to ponder past Novembers but to focus hard on this coming one.

Insiders need to start thinking about making their peace with Deanism. The party—the (still) post-1988 party—needs a rebuilt base, and Dean is doing that in a way that has no precedent. And instead of fretting about all the ways Dean could lose, the insiders might do better to spend some time thinking about how he might win.

Because he might. It was interesting that, in the wake of Gore's endorsement of Dean, it was conservative commentator William Kristol who wrote the column that most emphatically enumerated Bush's vulnerabilities. Sure, Kristol may have had his own reasons for arguing that Dean is competitive, but the facts of Bush's weak points are real. He has the powers of incumbency, money and a feared (actually, overly feared) political operation. But his numbers are soft. Gore's 2000 states plus Ohio or Arizona is a long, long way from being an impossible task—for Dean or for any of the aforementioned.

So let the race begin. And expect the impossible. It happens often.