Q&A: A New 50-State Strategy

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Howard Dean participates in "The Contenders: 16 for 16" panel during the PBS Television Critics Association summer press tour on Friday, July 29, 2016, in Beverly Hills, California.

Howard Dean, former Governor of Vermont, is widely considered among the most successful chairs of the Democratic National Committee in many decades. After losing the 2004 Democratic nomination for president to John Kerry, Dean ran for party chair, vowing what he called a “50-state strategy” of rebuilding the Democratic Party even in the most Republican of states. He was elected in 2005 and served for four years.

Under Dean, the DNC increased its fundraising dramatically, but shared the proceeds with state parties, in order to build up the grassroots. The strategy paid off when Democrats took back Congress in the 2006 elections. Candidate Barack Obama also benefited from Dean’s success, by doing better in red state primaries and caucuses than his 2008 rival, Hillary Clinton.

Prospect co-editor Robert Kuttner interviews Dean on the upcoming contest for new DNC chair.

Robert Kuttner: Governor Dean, many thanks for sharing some thoughts on the upcoming election for DNC chair. Obviously, this is of enormous importance, given the need for Democrats to rebuild at all levels. Do you have a sense of who might be elected chair?

I think it's pretty wide open. The wild card is Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend. He's an outsider, he's very young, he's a vet who served two tours in Afghanistan, and openly gay—he checks a lot of boxes. And he turns out to be a really good organizer. That's really something. I'd never heard of him. Jamie Harrison, the South Carolina chair, is very solid. So is Ray Buckley, the New Hampshire chair. It’s a good field.

So neither of the frontrunners, Representative Keith Ellison or Labor Secretary Tom Perez, has it locked up?

They’re both great people. I campaigned with Keith, I think he's fantastic. I've never met Tom Perez, but everybody I talk to says he's great. But I think they're both handicapped by being perceived rightly or wrongly as other people's candidates. This is an outsider election. There are 447 people in the DNC, and 400 of them are outside Washington. This is the most important vote of their life. They do not want to have Chuck Schumer or Barack Obama tell them how to vote.

If you're the state chair from Colorado or Alabama, you do not care what anybody says. It's your vote, and it's a big deal. This is the one big thing, other than going the convention every four years, that DNC members get to do. 

You are widely praised as one of the best DNC chairs in recent memory. What kind of mistakes do DNC chairs make, of the kind that you tried to avert during your tenure?

The first mistake is only focusing on the donors. You have to emphasize grassroots activities. You need to raise money from big donors, of course, but mainly you have to build the base and it has to be a significant base. This is not about making speeches about ideology, and it’s not the job of the DNC chair to decide what direction the party's going. That will be determined by the elected officials. This is a technocrat’s job.

Isn’t it also an organizer's job?

Yes, it’s an organizing job, but attention to detail matters and it's everything. You have got to be out, in the states, all the time. Doing the 50-state strategy was a major decision for me, partly because my experience with my own state party when I was governor was pretty bad. The state party was ineffective. I wouldn't even raise money for them.

How did you break through that?

I thought to myself, there's a vicious circle going on here. State parties can't raise money, so they can't accomplish anything, so they can't raise money. Somebody had to break the cycle, so I decided I would. I got a huge assist from people like then-Governor Elliot Spitzer, who put a fantastic guy in the New York chair, and from people in other states such as Fred Baron in Texas.

We need a partnership between the DNC with the state parties, to get more Democrats elected to state legislatures. Republicans have been incredibly effective with that. They've creamed us, and that's a really big problem.

And we need a national database. You've got to support the state parties with technology.

When I was chair, we supported the state parties financially, but we let states hire their own people. We paid three to five salaries per state, but we got to train them five times a year. I ran into problems in some states, but by and large this worked very well.

The other thing I’d recommend is to balance the books. Don't take out a lot of debt, and don't let other people take out a lot of debt, because you're going to need that money when election time comes.

What is the institutional Republican Party doing, at the state and local level, so much better than the institutional Democratic Party?

Oh, a lot of things. First of all, their messaging is incredibly disciplined, that's always been the case. It’s totally dishonest, but it's incredibly disciplined.

Second of all, they have billionaires writing enormous checks through election loopholes created by the Supreme Court, which is also in their pocket.

Thirdly, they pick winners and losers in their party, which I think is a bad idea, but they've done it and they've made it work. They choose who their Senate candidates are, for example, and they push rival people out of the way. I don't approve of that, I think it's a mistake in the long run, but it's worked for them.

And then, of course, they use their power on Capitol Hill to bring the nation to a halt. The Republicans are interested in one thing, and it's not the United States of America, it's power. And they're incredibly effective at it. They have more money than you can imagine and the people who have money have woken up and they'll stoop to anything to get what they want.

What’s the right relationship between the DNC and the congressional party fundraising committees, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC)?

As DNC chair, you are an elected independent official of the DNC, and you should never take orders from the DCCC or the DSCC. They have their own mission, and they can fund their own mission. Your job is not to elect Congress-people and senators. Of course you want to help, you want to work together, but your job is not to fundraise for them.

When I became chair, the first thing that the DNCC and the DSCC came to me for was money. That's how I got crosswise with Rahm Emanuel [chair of the DCCC at the time], because I told him I wasn't going to give him any campaign money.

What about the role of the DCCC and the DSCC in candidate recruitment? Rahm Emanuel was very aggressive at that and he took a lot of criticism from progressives because he would go for center-right Wall Street Democrats, who he thought could get funding or self-fund, and get elected.

I don't have a lot of use for his approach to politics. Nor do the people of Chicago, evidently. And I didn't give Rahm any money. I gave Chuck Schumer [then chair of the DSCC] $5 million at the end because Jim Webb, our candidate in Virginia, looked like he was going to be the 51st Democratic Senate seat in 2006, and he was.

The DSCC and the DCCC are very important organizations. The problem is, they're run by Washington-centric people. Rahm isn't the only person who likes Wall Street types with a lot of money to run their own campaigns. I think they tend to make judgments about candidates that are based more on money than on their ability to actually win and connect with people.

There’s a tension between the presidential campaigns and the party apparatus. The complaints heard at the state level are that the presidential campaign come through town like Sherman through Georgia, sucks up all the money, leaves almost nothing for the party, and then they're gone. How do you square that circle?

Don’t forget that after the candidate is nominated, the presidential campaign takes over the DNC. So they can do whatever they want, and that's just going to happen.

When I was chair and we didn't have a president in office, we used to do joint fundraisers. I would be the speaker and then we would put the proceeds into the local party. We're in partnership with the local parties. We're not in rivalry with them. You know, Washington is so Washington-centric that they just forget that there's a country of 305 million people that they're not in touch with.

But when you get into the cycle of presidential primaries, that gets complicated because the various candidates are out there beating the bushes for money. How did you navigate that?

People were willing to give us a lot of money in the presidential year, before they knew who the candidate was. They knew what we'd built and they believed that their candidate was going to be the one who benefited. It was very common for a donor to max out to Hillary or Barack Obama, and then give us the max as well. The grassroots work is much harder because it's much easier to give to a candidate than to a committee. Luckily, I was pretty good at that. 

How much of your time do you think you spent on raising money and how much on other aspects of party building?

Well, for the party-building I had a great team. I didn’t do it myself. And we didn’t fire the people who were already there. We reviewed the staff, one at a time. The other thing that's really important is diversity. You do not get diversity that really works well by affirmative action. You get it by making sure the people that are doing the hiring look like the workforce you want. You have to make sure the people that you rely on look like America. We all have a tendency to hire people like ourselves. Also, it helped that our pollster was African American, Cornell Belcher.

Some recent DNC chairs tried to do the job on a part time basis. Former chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was a member of Congress. Keith Ellison initially planned to stay in Congress if he were to win but then said he’d step down. You were a full-time chair. I assume you agree that this is a full-time job.

Ha! More than a full-time job. We have totally been raked over the coals by people who had both offices, and I'm not just talking about Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The model that Bill Clinton had, with two chairs—an outside chair who was an office-holder and an inside-chair to run the operation—that's a crazy model. The only reason we got away with it is because Clinton himself had so much political skill.  

How do we avoid the problem the DNC had this last time, where the DNC chair, in this case, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, gets too cozy with one candidate too early?

I don't know how that happened. Obviously I wasn't on the inside. But, the big problem is that when you have a president, the DNC is run by the president. The problem is the White House runs the DNC, so it becomes Washington-centric. We've fallen into that trap three times now since Carter, and we can't afford that again. Obviously, Barack Obama gave her the job because he decides who gets the DNC chair, but when Debbie was supporting Hillary she was freelancing.

Unhappily, that’s one problem we don't have over the next four years.

No, there’s not much of a silver lining in what we're about to get, but at least the DNC gets to start from the ground up. When I took charge, what I had was a new building, a beautiful building, and a six million dollar surplus thanks to my predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, and a great team. What we start with now, I think, is a fairly decent list that needs work, a good building, but we're essentially starting from ground zero. We've got to redo the whole thing.

And it sounds like a 50-state strategy is more important than ever.

We need two things: we need a 50-state strategy, and a 50-year strategy. That’s why I like the idea of somebody young doing this job. There's a well known observation among pollsters, that if you vote for a party three times early in your life, you're likely to vote for that party for the rest of your life. Well, the population group which has supported Democrats in the last three elections, including Hillary, to the tune of about 58 percent, was what I call the first global generation—most people call them millennials—but I don't like that, and they don't either. Those should be our voters, but they're not particularly interested in politics and they don't particularly care about institutions because they don't need them in most of their lives because they can create their own ad hoc networks using the internet. So, we've got to get those folks into the party, into that institution. That’s why I’d like to see someone young as party chair.

Young people voted for Obama in much higher numbers than they voted for Hillary Clinton.

That generation elected Barack Obama. 2008 was the only election in my lifetime where more people under 35 voted than over 65. This year is a wake-up call for that generation, which is really grief-stricken by Trump's vote, because it was a repudiation of all their values. I think they're ready to consider getting involved again. We can go back to the 50-state strategy, which is a no-brainer, but we also have to have a 50-year strategy.

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