Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Feb 3, 2005 in At TMV | 0 comments

Democratic Party May Be Readying The Kool Aid

Kool_1 Why don’t they just rename the Democratic Party the Hemlock Society and be done with it?

Because it looks like they’re readying Jim Jones’ special Kool Aid recipe for mass consumption right now. Writes Jonathan Chait:

A few weeks ago, when former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean declared his intention to run for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, news reports had the general tone of "Get this, that crazy scream guy is back and he wants to run the party." Now, a week before the vote, his victory is a fait accompli. How did this happen? Are Democrats suicidally crazy?

Wait. That’s too easy. Let me rephrase the question. Why are Democrats suicidally crazy?

That’s how Chait begins his column of consternation in the Los Angeles Times. And, indeed, watching the Democratic DNC chair be whittled down and Howard Dean  roar into Big Mo territory raises these two questions, plus this one: does anyone in the Democratic party have a CLUE that part of the party’s problem is an IMAGE problem as well as a vision and cohesive policy problems?

Although Dean can be a solid speaker, and the scream denunciations were overdone (which makes no difference since it was catastrophic to his candidacy), it’s unlikely his image is going to bring back straying Democrats who seemingly deserted the Democratic party in 2004 the same way they left to become Reagan Democrats in the 80s. More from Chait:

The conventional rap against Dean as DNC chairman is essentially the same as the conventional rap against him as presidential candidate a year ago. Namely, he reinforces all the party’s weaknesses. Democrats need to appeal to culturally traditional voters in the Midwest and border states who worry about the party’s commitment to national security. Dean, with his intense secularism, arrogant style, throngs of high-profile counterculture supporters and association with the peace movement, is the precise opposite of the image Democrats want to send out.

The conventional rap is completely right. But, in a way, Dean is even less suited to run the DNC than he is to run for president.

The DNC chairman has two main jobs. First, he transmits the party’s message — an important role when the party lacks a president and majority leaders in Congress. This job requires one to master the dismal art of "message discipline," boiling down the party’s ideas into a few simple phrases and repeating them over and over until they have sunk into the public consciousness.

It’s a role for which Dean is particularly ill suited. During his campaign, remember, he fashioned himself a straight talker, delighting reporters by repeatedly wandering "off message." On the plus side, he won friends in the media by appearing honest and human. On the negative side, he did himself enormous damage, when, for example, he suggested that he wouldn’t prejudge Osama bin Laden until he had been convicted in a court of law.

Indeed, Dean has proven himself to be the quote-thirsty Journalists’ Best Friend. We always loved sources and political figures who shot-from-the-lip, the "great quote" people who could liven up a story or communicate a concept with a few fiery words. Oftentimes this kind of figure can help generate more stories because he’s a loose verbal cannon. So political journalists (and Saturday Night Live writers) must be down on their knees praying for a Dean victory as you read this post.

The question is whether Dean has the discipline to further his party’s interests and image, temper his own flip inclinations, and do all of this behavior modification in a way so it is NOTICED by the press — plus by Democrats who deserted their party and by independents who may have their doubts about the GOP.

And then there’s this:

For presidential candidates, the negatives of "straight talk" usually outweigh the positives. Paul Maslin, Dean’s former pollster, wrote in the Atlantic Monthly after the campaign fell apart: "Our candidate’s erratic judgment, loose tongue, and overall stubbornness wore our spirits down." But at least for a presidential campaign there are some positives in going off message. In a job like party chairman, a loose cannon is nothing but downside.

The second major task of the DNC chairman is to run the party organization. And here, if this is at all possible, Dean looks even worse. Garance Franke-Ruta, who wrote sympathetic Dean pieces in the American Prospect during the campaign, spoke with several former Dean staffers. One called the candidate "a horrible manager" and added, "I wouldn’t trust him to run a company." Another called his management style "just a disaster."

So his management style is not supposed to be terrific, either. Then how could the Democrats be poised to select him? Our answers: instant nostalgia (John Kerry was not beloved by the bulk of Democrats even though he got the nomination), the desire for a Give ‘Em Hell Harry type spokesman, and Dean’s skillful focus on the nuts-and-bolts of appealing to segments of the party’s militants. Chait agrees citing this:

So, how did Dean manage to trounce all comers for this position? Dean’s supporters see his triumph as the victory of the masses over a tiny Democratic elite desperately trying to cling to power. As one left-liberal blogger gloated: "The fact that Howard Dean will most likely be heading up the Democratic Party is our victory. It is the voice of the grass roots lifted up into the halls of power once owned by the ‘aristocracy of consultants.’ " That actually has it backward. A recent Wall Street Journal poll found that only 27% of Democrats approve of Dean.

In the latest issue of the New Republic, Ryan Lizza described how Dean had prevailed in a process of third-rate intrigue. The choosing of the DNC chairman has been dominated by state parties, whose concerns revolve around expanding perks, including a demand for a $200,000 handout for each state party from the national party. Nobody seemed to pay much attention to the good of the party as a whole. Meanwhile, Dean touched those leaders’ ideological erogenous zones, promising to "feed our core constituencies" and not be "Republican-lite."
So here is the Bottom Line:

In other words, if Dean gets the DNC chairmanship, he plans to throw down the ideological gauntlet.

But Democrats better hope that if he does that during these times when their party has faced power-reducing defections from the center, he doesn’t further throw down their party as well.

UPDATE: Some Democrats are nervous a possible Dean chairmanship — but others say the GOP would be making a mistake by rubbing its hands in glee, reports USA Today:

Mark Brewer, chairman of the Michigan Democrats and a national group of state party chairmen that recently endorsed Dean, says Republicans shouldn’t gloat. “Let them have their fun right now,” he says. â€oeI think they’re going to regret the day that Howard Dean became chairman of the DNC.â€?

Dean was a fiscal conservative and supported gun rights as governor. But he came across in his presidential campaign as a dovish Northeastern liberal with a tendency to commit gaffes, such as his â€oescreamâ€? speech after losing the Iowa caucuses. Not the obvious choice for a party struggling to find a camera-ready leader, increase its appeal in Republican-leaning states and convince people it can keep them safe.

The paper notes analyzes Dean’s qualifies, then adds:

Remarks from other Democrats suggest they don’t see Dean in that role. “We’re not looking for a spokesperson in the chairmanship,”? 2004 nominee John Kerry said on NBC.

Terry McAuliffe, current DNC chairman, says he gave Dean a two-hour presentation on what a party chairman does. “Your job is to raise money and do the mechanics,” he said in an interview. “It is not your jobto set policy.”

In recent TV appearances, Dean offered his opinion on two Cabinet votes and disagreed with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada on whether Antonin Scalia would be tolerable as chief justice of the Supreme Court. Reid later noted his constituency is “much larger” than the 447-member DNC. Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, said she thinks Dean “would take his lead from us.”?

McEntee says he told Dean “he’s got to be disciplined and careful” and not step on toes, his own or those of elected party leaders. He says Dean told him he might do more party building and less TV “because there’s always this possibility that he’d lose some of that discipline that he’s trying to form.”

There is still some unease about Dean’s grass-roots multitudes, whom he mobilized for his DNC bid. “His people tend to be a bit left,” Pederson says, adding some DNC members in Arizona were “alarmed” at the avalanche of calls from them.