Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Howard Dean Fun Machine Roll On

There are a several points not being addressed in the stories I've seen on Howard Dean becoming the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

First and foremost is that former chairman Terry McAuliffe went quietly. Yes, he's been steadily and roundly criticised all through the Democratic Party for his leadership, but he's also been seen as the critical compenent of a Hillary in '08 run. She's the candidate, Bill's the advisor, Terry's the moneyman and coordinator. The fact that acquiesed with such aplomb should be looked at. As the putative front-runner, Hillary had to both sign off on his leaving and encourage Terry to do so. What's the story in that?

Then there's the fact that Dean didn't win a vote against competing candidates, but was merely the "last man standing" at the end of the process. He wasn't so much selected as defaulted to. Every other candidate, and there were seven at one point, withdrew. For all that the Dems are trying to point ahead, it sure sounds like what happened in the last campaign. After Kerry gained solid front-runner status in the primaries, his opponents disappeared and all ideological and strategic disagreements were buried or suppressed straight through Election Day.

I would really love to hear the story of the back room deals that made Dean's non-opposition possible. This makes Dean look stronger than he may in fact be. It also pre-empted the still-necessary discussion between the shrill anti-war, anti-Bush Leftist wing of the party that dominated this past year, and the more traditional pro-defense, pro-worker liberal voices like Lieberman that have been shouted down.

Dean may bring "new excitement and new energy" to the party, but that's just marketing speak. To me, he sounds like his flag is firmly planted in the anti-war Left. Don't forget how he alienated much of the South with his primary rhetoric. I suspect he's part of the broader movement in the Democratic Party to sharply define themselves by sharply drawing a line between themselves and the Republicans. It's what Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. just went through with his talk about Social Security privatisation. Dean seems less interested in building bridges to Reagan Democrats, blue dog Dems and red-state minded voters than in making the chasm deeper, wider and easier to fall over. I think that approach will solidy the Democrats, sure, but as a much smaller party with an even harder row to hoe in future elections.

Throw in Dean's temper and explosiveness. That alone will make him fun to watch.

One more thing I haven't seen addressed is the question of style. Dean is widely hailed as the inventor of Internet campaigning (shades of Al Gore!), of using all the sparkly, new, gee-whiz advances of the Internet to raise funds, build bases and spread the word. As successful as that may have been for the Dems, the Republicans went back to an older model that seems to have worked better. They used the "word of mouth" neighbor to neighbor approach.

Republican fundraising relied on identifying communtiy leaders and movers, then signing them up to find and motivate the next level. Those folks went out to recruit more at fund-raisers or other get-togethers, and so the process spread at the personal level. It's kind of a pyramid, or maybe a bush with endless branches. (Pardon the pun.) It was all done by face to face talk, one on one conversation. It's the oldest way of doing things.

This campaign may shape up (depending on who takes over for Karl Rove and how much his successor uses his lessons) as a head to head matchup between the viral Internet and the backfence. I think that this next Presidential election will be as heated as the past two. We no longer have an incumbent, nor will we have a returning challenger in Kerry. The Democrats will be fighting to stay relevant; the Republicans will be trying out a post-Bush image. It will be labelled in the media as a "fight for the future of the country's direction." So how these two organising methods play against, or borrow from, each other will be interesting to watch.

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